Four hours after being abandoned at the altar, Kate Frazer paced through her bedchamber.
It was a beautiful room. A spacious affair that her father had commanded thoroughly refurbished when he had purchased the estate five years before. Drenched in pale blue and ivory, it boasted a magnificent view of the Kent countryside and the rarified scent of pure wealth. A perfect setting for the proper, dutiful daughter of Sir Archibald Frazer.
Today, however, Kate took little notice of how her satin slippers sank into the floral carpet. Or how the mullioned windows reflected the pale November sunlight.
Instead she battled the urge to hit something. Preferably the handsome countenance of her treacherous fiancÃ©. Damn and blast Lucius Jonathon Duval, Lord of Calfield.
It had been bad enough to know that the man was merely marrying her for the vulgarly large dowry her father had offered. And that during their brief engagement, he had called upon her on less than a half dozen occasions, and then, she was convinced, only to ensure that she had not met an untimely end and deprived him of his windfall.
And now . . . this.
Reaching a small pier table that held a particularly ugly collection of china figurines that had been an engagement gift from Lord Calfield's aunt, Kate was about to turn and resume her pacing when she abruptly halted. For a moment she glared at the hapless treasures. And then she did the unthinkable. Or at least the unthinkable for a maiden who was always proper, always dutiful, and always anxious to please others.
Plucking a delicate figurine from the table, she turned and launched it at the door.
Rather to her surprise, the sound of splintering china provided a distinct sense of satisfaction. Perhaps not as satisfying as tossing the projectiles at Calfield's golden head, but at the moment, she would take what she could get.
She reached for another figurine, then rapidly turned and tossed it in the same direction as the other. Before it could land, however, the door was suddenly thrust open and a tall, dark-haired maiden was forced to abruptly double over with a faint shriek.
“Kate?” Julia Alexander warily straightened to regard her with an expression that revealed her fear that Kate had plunged over the edge. “Are you . . . all right?”
Wryly, Kate glanced down at the ivory silk wedding gown that had cost her father a near fortune. “Oh, I am just splendid.”
“You are certain?”
“Why would I not be?” She offered her young cousin a tight smile. “I absolutely adore devoting hours to having my hair wrenched into painful curls, my poor body poked, pushed, and prodded into a corset from the netherworld, and all so that I can stand before a hundred smugly amused strangers who are there to witness my spectacular humiliation.”
Julia grimaced. “Forgive me, Kate. That was a ridiculous question, considering the circumstances.”
Kate heaved a sigh. “No, I am the one who is sorry. I should not snap at you. This fiasco is certainly not your fault.”
Her cousin stepped closer, her expression troubled. “Do you wish to talk about it?”
Kate shuddered, her arms wrapping across her heaving stomach. “Talk about what? I was jilted. There is little more to be said.”
The lovely dark eyes that Kate had always secretly envied narrowed as Julia took another step closer.
“Are you so very certain?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Are you certain that Lord Calfield intended to jilt you?”
Kate blinked, briefly wondering if her cousin had been sneaking into the numerous bottles of champagne her father had intended for the wedding breakfast. That could surely be her only excuse.
“I should think that was fairly obvious, Julia. A gentleman does not unintentionally jilt his bride,” she retorted between gritted teeth. “He must make a decided effort to avoid the church where his presence is expected.”
“Yes, but . . .” Julia frowned. “What if there was a reason he did not arrive at the church?”
“You fear he may have been captured by pirates? Or perhaps he tragically went mad and is even now roaming the countryside?”
“Of course not. But what if there was an accident?”
Kate's lips thinned at the mere suggestion. She might be overly naive for a woman of four and twenty years, but she was not an utter imbecile.
“Lord Calfield's estate is but two miles from the church. Had there been an accident we would have known.”
“Well then, perhaps he is ill.”
“And not one of his servants could be bothered to carry a message to me? Really, Julia, you are grasping at straws. The truth is painfully obvious. He finally accepted that the glittering promise of a fat dowry was not worth wedding me.”
Julia gave a shake of her head, her gaze briefly flickering over her cousin's tiny form. Kate knew precisely what she was seeing. A woman too short and slender to look anything but foolish in the elegant gown. Red hair that was ruthlessly tamed in a crown of curls and eyes that refused to be either blue or green. An awkward, plain dab of a woman who had never felt comfortable in her own skin.
“That cannot be true, Kate,” she said softly.
“Why ever not?”
Julia drew in a harsh breath. “Because for all his faults, Lord Calfield is a gentleman.”
A wry smile curved Kate's lips. “As were King Richard the Third and the Marquis de Sade. What does that have to do with the matter?”
“Everything, as you well know.” A hint of impatience touched the pretty countenance. “He would not behave in such a dastardly fashion. Not at the risk of being condemned by society and leaving himself vulnerable to a breach of promise suit.”
“Which only reveals how desperate he must have been.”
“Oh, Kate.” Julia gave a rueful shake of her head. “I think you should at least wait until you have spoken with the man before you condemn him as a heartless beast.”
Kate offered an inelegant snort. She was not at all in the humor to offer Lord Calfield the benefit of the doubt. Not after standing for nearly an hour at that blasted altar listening to the giggles and snide comments whispered behind her back.
In truth, all she wanted was to forget that Lord Calfield even existed.
Blast it all. She had made an utter fool of herself, and for what?
For a fiancÃ© who considered her no more than a nuisance necessary to acquiring a fortune? For a father who was desperate to thrust her onto the first willing gentleman? For her own sense of uncertainty?
Enough was enough.
Her entire life she had struggled to play the role of the perfect maiden. After her mother had abandoned the family for a charming, worthless rogue and taken herself off to Paris, it had been made painfully obvious that she was being constantly judged. From her father to the tenants, all had waited to determine if she had inherited more than her mother's red hair and slender form.
Bad blood ran in her veins, she was too often reminded, and it was her duty to prove she was capable of overcoming any wicked impulses.
Well, frankly, at the moment she was sick to bloody death of being the proper Miss Frazer.
She had done everything that was demanded of her. She had followed every rule. She had meekly submitted to the opinions of others. One day she was going to die, she told herself, and what would be her epitaph?
Here lies a pitiful, bitter old spinster who died alone in her cold bed with no one to mourn her passing.
The knowledge shook her to the very core.
“No, Julia. I have no interest in ever seeing Lord Calfield again. Even if he came to me with a thousand tragic excuses, I would not consent to marry him. Not after today.”
Clearly startled by her cousin's uncharacteristic stubbornness, Julia gave a faint frown.
“You are naturally upset,” she offered in comforting tones. “Once you have had the opportunity to contemplate ...”
“I have contemplated,” Kate interrupted in fierce tones, her eyes glittering with a hectic glow. “Perhaps for the first time in my life. And I will tell you that I have come to a few unpleasant truths about myself.”
“What do you mean?”
Kate struggled to put her overwhelming sense of restless anger into words. “When I was forced to stand at that altar and consider my future, I realized that I had far too many regrets.”
Julia lifted her hands in a sympathetic motion. “Any woman would feel betrayed, Kate.”
“No, it was more than that,” Kate insisted. “I suddenly realized that I have never truly been happy.”
Julia gave a choked sound of surprise, glancing pointedly about the elegant chamber that would make the most demanding maiden drool.
“You must be jesting. You possess everything a woman could desire. Wealth, position, and a fiancÃ© who makes maidens swoon in delight.”
A month ago, Kate might have agreed. She was safe in her isolated world. As long as she behaved and did as she was told, there were no troubles, no fears, no disappointments.
And no pleasure, she realized. No excitement. No risks. None of the things that made life worthwhile.
“Julia, do you realize that I have never made a decision for myself?” Kate demanded, suddenly plagued by a sharp sense of restless energy. “For years I have allowed my father to utterly manage me. He chose my wardrobe, my friends, and what social functions I was allowed to attend. I was never consulted, or my opinion requested. Not even when it came to acquiring a husband.”
Julia gave a sudden grimace. “Good gads, Kate, I have been warning you for years that you were far too biddable. But you always claimed that you were content. Even when your father announced your engagement, you assured me that it was what you desired.”
“Because I allowed myself to be convinced it was for the best.” Her features hardened in remembered disgust. “After all, I am the daughter of a scandalous, wicked jade. How could I possibly be trusted to choose what was expected of a respectable maiden? Now I realize that I have been a fool.”
“No, not a fool,” Julia softly breathed. “Just a dutiful daughter.”
Kate abruptly tilted her chin. “Well, no more.”
“I . . .” Julia suddenly regarded her in a wary manner. “What are you going to do?”
Kate stilled at the unexpected question.
What was she going to do?
After the most humiliating day in her life, did she intend to return to being the sweet, biddable Miss Kate Frazer?
A warm rush of determination filled her body. She would not, could not, go back to the way things had been before.
She had been given a . . . what was the word? A revelation. One of those rare moments of clarity where the truth kicked you right in the head.
She was a different Kate Frazer.
A Kate who longed to break free of her tedious life. A Kate who would not be afraid of risks or of making her own decisions.
She was going to be bold and daring and free.
Just as her mother had been.
With a brilliant smile, she met her cousin's worried gaze squarely.
“I'm going to do . . . everything.”
“Everything I have missed,” Kate announced, audaciously sweeping the rest of the figurines onto the floor as she paced to stare at the frosty Kent countryside. “I want to go to London and visit the theater. I want to see the Prince and ride through Hyde Park. I want to know what it is like to be cast to the wind and I want to have a glorious flirtation with some man I have no intention of marrying. I want to enjoy myself with no concern of what is proper.”
There was a shocked silence before Julia gave a disbelieving laugh. “Good heavens, you have gone mad.”
Kate slowly turned with a rueful grin. “Perhaps I have, but for the moment I do not care.”
Her cousin studied her for a long moment, then a sudden smile eased her concern. “I was wrong. I think that at long last you have come to your senses. I could not be happier.”
“Do you know . . . neither could I.”
Julia's smile slightly dimmed. “Still, what of your father? He has always refused to allow you to go to London.”
Kate's sense of euphoria briefly faded at the mention of her father. As Julia had pointed out, he had adamantly refused her timid requests for a London season. At the time, he had claimed that it was an utter waste of money, but they both knew it was his fear that she might cause him embarrassment that had kept her firmly imprisoned in the country.
“I shall tell him that I am visiting Aunt Clara to recover from my terrible disappointment,” she retorted, refusing to admit even to herself that the thought of confronting her father was more than a little nerve-racking. “He will never know that I am instead traveling to London.”
“And if your father hears rumors of you in London?” Julia demanded.
Kate slowly smiled. “He will not.”
“How can you be so certain?”
“Because, Miss Kate Frazer shall not be in London.”
“From the moment I leave Kent, I shall be Mrs. Katherine Freemont. A lonely widow in dire need of a bit of adventure.”
“Good God.” Julia gave a slow shake of her head. “This has all the makings of a disaster.”
Kate forced herself to give an indifferent shrug. Such worries were for tomorrow.
Today was a new beginning.
* * *
Tonight was the end.
His final night of freedom.
Sprawled comfortably upon the bed with nothing more than a pair of buckskins covering his lean, muscular form and his arm pillowing his golden head, Lord Calfield glanced about the cramped bedchamber of the Posting Inn.