London, 14 May 1848
“I think, perhaps… I should stay home.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Why?”
“Because…” Kate turned away from her step-mother and examined herself in a mirror. Since the Lovelace’s dinner party almost three weeks previously she had felt apprehension whenever venturing outside of their London house. They had attended a couple small Royal Society lectures, and gone to The Punch Bowl for a luncheon, but this would be the first time Kate truly entered society since the Lovelace’s dinner party. Kate thought her face showed some signs of worry, a frown and a sadness around her eyes. “What if Mr. Roylance is there?”
“Pish!” Jane burst derisively. “That scapegrace, no matter how charming, would never be invited to an event like this – Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are attending!”
Kate considered that for a moment. Why was he invited to the dinner party? Because Ada likes to gamble?
“There haven’t been any rumours about you and Xavier Roylance,” Jane went on. “Your father and I have talked to hundreds of people at various events. In fact, your father still doesn’t know what happened. I heard Roylance is telling everyone he broke his hand hitting a drunken lout who insulted a lady. What a preposterous lie!”
“Nothing about…” Kate cringed. She had related the events in a letter to Phoebe, her brother’s wife, and she wrote back to gently explain the significance and innuendo of the way Roylance taught Kate to eat strawberries; the boasts he might make in this regard. “No one has said anything about me being alone with him?”
“Not a word,” Jane said firmly. “None of my friends have mentioned anything, or my sister. If there was any talk of scandal, they would warn me.”
“And you would tell me?”
“Indeed!” Jane got to her feet and started pacing. “My goodness, I would have to! If you heard for yourself… I don’t know what you’d do.” She shuddered. “Your temper! I had no idea. Well, some inkling, but… I’m glad we’re finally talking about this.”
Kate watched as a red-faced and clearly agitated Jane stormed in and out of the reflection.
“I thought you’d kill Roylance with that poker,” Jane continued, throttling a spectral neck with grasping hands. “Thank God I was there to stop you! Your face… the hate! I imagine you… dashing his brains out… the gore…”
“Please stop.” Kate turned from the mirror. “If I heard a rumour now, I don’t know how I might act. I think… I’d rather stay at home. And I mean Quantock Hall, not here.”
“You know that’s an impossibility.” Jane took a breath and sat again. “Your father expects you to be a lady, and marry well. That requires social efforts, not hiding in the country. Would you disappoint your father?”
“No, of course not.”
“Then you must carry on. This is a… a learning experience. Know a man’s reputation before ever being alone with him, even for a moment, and keep a rein on your temper.”
“You think I shouldn’t have hit him?”
“Oh! No, that was fine.” Jane giggled. “Taught that scoundrel a lesson. But you were… you lost control. A lady must always be in control of her emotions, or the emotions will control the lady.”
“Yes,” Kate agreed weakly, feeling tired. “I know.”
“Very good.” Jane smiled. “Now, how would you like to wear the Burmese ruby pendants and brooch to the recital tomorrow?”
Stafford House, 15 May 1848
Kate glanced out a window as they made a turn and saw a line of carriages waiting to discharge their occupants in the porte-cochère under a Corinthian-styled balcony of Stafford House, the palatial London home of the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland. She was relieved to see some children with their parents entering through the broad doors. Her father and Jane spoke lowly about strolling in Green Park after the recital. Kate didn’t digest their words. Her nerves quivered. She needed to get inside and find somewhere safe from which to observe people, to ensure she wasn’t the subject of unsavoury rumours.
The carriages edged forward, a few horses neighing impatiently, then came the Beaufort’s turn to unload. A footman opened the door and unfolded the stairs. Earl Beaufort exited first then helped Jane and Kate down. They quickly arranged their skirts and entered a large foyer. Guests were gathered in lively conversations creating a roar, and ladies took time to inspect their outfits in mirrors. Servants stood by to collect hats, parasols, and outerwear for storage in a porter’s room. The ladies retained their bonnets. Kate, still officially a child, removed her bonnet and let her long braids and tumbling tresses cascade down her back. She kept her eyes on the floor while following close behind her father and step-mother. They moved in fits and starts as people talked to them, working their way through a wide vestibule, Kate curtsying semi-consciously whenever she heard her name. Abruptly, with a tightening of muscles, she recognised the voice of the Earl of Lovelace greeting her father, and then;
“How is Lady Kate Lion-heart?” Countess Ada Lovelace, asked loudly.
Kate blinked in surprise and glanced rapidly from face to face of the adults looking at her, some smiling, some puzzled. Annabella, the Lovelace’s eleven year old daughter, skipped to Kate’s side. Kate crouched to give the diminutive girl a hug.
“I’m fine, thank you,” Kate replied, over Annabella’s shoulder.
“Lion-heart?” Earl Beaufort asked.
“None other,” Countess Lovelace replied with a mischievous smile. She took Earl Beaufort’s elbow. “Shall we find Lord and Lady Sutherland? What do you make of the developments in Austria and the German States? Do you feel…” Her words were lost in the general clamour of the crowd.
Earl Lovelace offered his elbow to Jane, and they followed.
“May we walk together?” Annabella asked Kate, barely above a whisper.
“Of course.” Kate took her hand.
Annabella’s brothers, older Byron and younger Ralph, brought up the rear. They climbed a few steps while passing between polished marble pillars, and entered a large central hall.
“She’s been calling you Lion-heart for weeks,” Annabella said.
“To whom?” Kate asked, curious and afraid.
“To anyone who visits. When they talk about common acquaintances. If Earl or Countess Beaufort are mentioned, then Mamma speaks of you. She says you should have come out this year, but you will next year.”
“Perhaps. Or the year after.”
“She says next year, and that you will soon teach all the men a lesson on how to behave themselves.”
“I will?!” All the men?!
Conversation ceased as they came to a staircase where the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland greeted the guests. Kate, despite her whirling head, finally noticed the opulent surroundings. Red carpet, marbled walls, enormous paintings, classical statuary, a grand split staircase leading up to pillared walkways, and windows three stories above let in sufficient light to shimmer upon the golden gilt ornamentation. The Duke of Sutherland, somewhat deaf, smiled and shook hands as he accepted yelled greetings, allowing the Duchess of Sutherland, Mistress of the Robes, to do most of the talking. When the men did converse for a moment, Kate was called out from the children for an introduction to the Duchess of Sutherland. Kate felt the woman looked her over like a hungry cat with a delectable mouse.
“I knew your mother,” the Duchess of Sutherland stated plainly as Kate completed a curtsy.
Kate lowered her chin for a moment. What do I say about a parent I know only from portraits? I wish I did know my mother.
“Have you met our son George?” the Duchess of Sutherland asked.
“No, your grace,” Kate replied, noticing Jane drawing nearer.
“He’s our eldest son,” the Duchess of Sutherland continued, “the Marquess of Stafford.”
Kate perceived this as an invitation to be presented as a possible match to the future Duke of Sutherland. As much as she hated the idea, she knew what to say.
“I would very much like to meet Lord Stafford. If it pleases you, I will avail myself whenever you or your husband, his grace, might wish to summon me, your grace.”
Then Kate took Annabella’s hand again, climbed the last stair onto the landing, and walked around the Sutherlands to wait beside her father, both of them by far the tallest in the conversation, except Earl Lovelace. The Duchess of Sutherland eyed Kate a moment, then greeted the next guests. Kate hoped, perhaps, her manly height would dissuade the Duchess of Sutherland of further interest, but her statuesque physique might also be considered attractive, so she couldn’t know.
The Beauforts and Lovelaces continued up the stairs, ambled along a walkway, entered a drawing room, then split into two parties, the adults proceeding into the gallery while the children went into a larger drawing room. About three dozen well turned-out children of various ages waited within, pockets of boys and girls talking animatedly. Kate knew some of the girls and boys were older than her, but she felt mature beyond their years. Her full-length dark green taffeta dress (tastefully trimmed with pink and red silk flowers) and ruby jewellery seemed very adult. She took a chair near the centre of the room, as the groups were around the edges, and perched very straight and still, her head up, but her eyes cast down. Annabella sat beside Kate and they chatted about what they’d been reading, settling on Varney the Vampire as an amusing, terrifying, sensational, and poorly written subject.
“Someone is spying on you,” Annabella whispered.
Kate raised her lids and saw two gentlemen of perhaps twenty-five years of age standing a little beyond the doorway, staring at her. I don’t know them. They could be members of the same club as Mr. Roylance! What might they be saying about me?
When eye contact was made the men turned and walked towards the gallery, out of view. Then Earl Hugh Grosvenor, the Member of Parliament for Chester, came to the threshold with some of his younger brothers and sisters. He immediately entered and approached Kate, with Bert and Janey on his heels, and their youngest siblings, Richard and Theodora, splitting off to join playmates. Kate stood, feeling genuinely happy to see old friends.
“How you’ve changed,” Kate said to Janey, a girl about half a year younger than her, as they hugged.
“Me?!” Janey exclaimed. “No one believes you’re fourteen, do they? If Hugh hadn’t told me what to expect I might not have known you! And he said you’ve been like this since last spring.”
Hugh turned a shade of red, but stood his tallest and grinned at Kate. She appreciated his clear and kind well-proportioned face, with a long nose and round chin, and smiled in return.
“I’m like a little girl standing beside you,” Janey went on. “I can see you’ve grown far beyond our play days.”
A pang of regret stabbed Kate’s heart. Have I? I would dearly love to have play days with friends.
“Hard to believe we were pretending to be pirates a few years ago,” Bert said.
“Pirates, yes…” Kate smiled at the memories. She noticed Bert’s voice had deepened, and he looked like a younger shorter version of Hugh, but somehow tougher, with a firm mouth, thicker neck, and square shoulders. “Do you still plan for a career in the navy?”
“I do indeed,” he replied, “it begins this summer.”
“Yes, I’m three years behind. Many midshipmen start at twelve.”
“You’ll soon catch them up,” Kate said, feeling jealous. “You’ll have great adventures.”
“I hope so.”
“Not too great, or dangerous,” Janey said.
“I have to take my seat in the gallery,” Hugh interrupted. “May I have a moment with Lady Kate? You can talk after.”
Bert and Janey exchanged arched brows, then backed away. Hugh carefully took Kate’s arm and guided her near the open doorway. Kate noted his gallant manner and use of formality.
“I want to thank you, Lady Kate, for replying to my letters,” he said.
“You’re welcome, Lord Grosvenor.”
“Might I call on you later this month? Or in June? How long will you be in London?”
Kate heard an earnestness in his tone, spied a gleam in his eye. “I’m not certain,” she replied, stalling for a moment, conjuring what to say. “You must know… you cannot call on me. I’m not out, and if I were, there would first have to be an understanding between us, and our fathers.”
“Yes…” Hugh shifted his visage away from Kate and lowered his voice, “but it is acceptable for a young lady to establish an understanding before she is out.”
“We do not have an understanding,” Kate said firmly.
Kate detected a sagging of the young man’s posture, his face dark and crumbling. Oh… he looks so sad. I must say something nice. “Not yet,” she amended. “You may call on my father. I’m usually home and could make myself available.”
“Yes. And depending on the day, we might be able to take my dog for a walk in Hyde Park? My step-mother would certainly approve. And, I believe, so would my father.”
“They would?” As quickly as it darkened, his face lightened and broke into a broad grin. “Thank you, Lady Kate. I must take my seat. Perhaps I’ll see you after the recital? Please tarry awhile if possible.”
Hugh hurried into the small drawing room just as several of the Sutherland children entered from the walkway. Lady Constance, a girl turning fourteen in June, wearing a lovely pale blue house gown, marched up to Hugh and fired an icy glare at Kate. In the year that had passed since Kate first met Constance, the girl had grown a bit, and altered her demeanour. She clearly possessed improved confidence. Kate backed away and saw words spoken, then Constance stretched up and pulled Hugh over to peck his cheek. Hugh strode from the room into the gallery. Constance entered the large drawing room with her siblings. Kate retreated to the chair beside Annabella. Lord Frederick, the Sutherland’s fifteen year old son, closed the door and waved for silence.
“The Royal Party is downstairs now,” he announced. “We’re permitted to greet them on their way into the gallery. Then, after they’re seated, we may enter and stand wherever there are spaces. Do not wander about during the recital. You must stay still and listen politely. When it ends, we will either stand silently until the Royal Party leaves, or come back in here and wait. Are there any questions?”
“Can we stay in here?” a boy asked.
“No. Your parents thought this event would be good for you to attend. That’s why younger brothers and sisters aren’t here. There has to be silence during the recital. You have to come in the gallery and behave. Any other questions? No? Good. Everybody into the other room.”
The young lords and ladies filed into the small drawing room and lined the walls, staying well clear of the doorways of the walkway and gallery. Kate hooked Janey’s elbow and held Annabella’s hand. She felt like a governess with her wards.
“When did you first see Queen Victoria?” Annabella asked.
“Her coronation,” Kate replied without hesitation, the event a vivid image from her childhood. “I remember pressing my hands over my ears, so loud was the cheering, the trumpets. And I yelled, hurrah, hurrah, with all my might, as the new young queen passed us.”
“Us?” Janey asked. “You couldn’t have been standing with your father.”
“No. I was in the crowd with my brother, Jack.”
“How old were you?”
“Hmm… four. Why yes, it was ten years ago this June. Jack had just turned twenty. My goodness… he’s thirty next month.”
“What was the best part of the coronation?”
“After.” Kate smiled at the fond memories. “Father had duties to preform, so Jack took me to dinner. Then we went to a curiosity and toy shop. He bought me a rag-doll rabbit, made of yellow velvet. I still have it.” Although it is a little faded, grimy, and tattered.
Four very tall and extravagantly attired footmen entered the room and took positions on either side of the doorways.
“Quiet now,” Lord Frederick ordered. “Remember, when the queen passes you bow or curtsy. Don’t stand there with your mouth hanging open.”
They waited in silence for perhaps a minute, then voices and footsteps grew steadily louder. The children let go of each other and stood to attention. Queen Victoria swept into the room with Prince Albert, escorted by the Sutherlands, and followed by the royal couple’s two eldest children, the seven year old Princess Victoria, and six year old Prince Albert Edward. They all wore quality clothes, but appeared plain compared to the footmen.
Kate put a hand to the large ruby brooch at her throat. Am I dressed better than the queen? That must be a social blunder… oh, but many of the ladies are wearing finer outfits then me.
Kate performed her best curtsy as the Royal Party passed. The Duchess of Sutherland and Queen Victoria exchanged hushed words. Prince Albert nodded left and right, quietly giving his thanks to the children. The princess and prince smiled and waved at any recognised acquaintances. Within the gallery someone loudly announced the arrival of the queen, and there was an explosion of exclamations and movement, then silence. A murmur of discussions ensued, then the children entered the gallery, some hurrying around the outside of the occupied rows of chairs. Kate, wanting to remain as invisible as possible, sidled in beside some seated ladies near the door with Annabella, but a footman then led them up to the main portion of the gallery, not far from the piano!
No, no, no! Not right at the front centre! Everyone will see me…
Kate wanted to turn back, but Annabella held her hand tight and dutifully followed the footman. From their position they could see the Royal Party and noblest guests seated closest to the beautiful piano, and the polished ebony and ivory keys themselves, waiting for the virtuoso pianist. Kate, trying to hide, gently gathered Annabella into a position in front of her, loosely wrapping her arms across her upper torso in a hug, letting the girl lean back on her body, while Kate used the wall for support.
Kate searched the crowd for her father and step-mother. She spotted Hugh and some of his siblings sitting with their parents, Richard Grosvenor, Marquess of Westminster, and his wife, Lady Elizabeth, a sister of the Duke of Sutherland. They were positioned behind the Sutherlands, who sat to the right of the Royal Party. Kate noticed a man of about twenty years of age beside the Duke of Sutherland, and suspected him to be George, the eldest son. She didn’t like the look of him; his suit and hair unkempt, a sullen face with sleepy eyes, and he slouched in his chair.
Broken applause started as a small pale man walked slowly from the far entrance of the gallery, then a loud ovation greeted him. He stopped and bowed to the queen, and they spoke lowly in French. Kate discerned the man wasn’t fluent, which surprised her, as she knew he had lived in France over a decade.
“That’s Monsieur Chopin?” Anabella whispered with a sceptical tone.
“Shh,” Kate hushed and gave her a squeeze. “Yes. Listen.”
Chopin sat at the piano and started to play. Everyone fixed their attention, perhaps two hundred people, motionless, listening intently. Kate watched Chopin’s hands for the first two pieces, and started to feel hypnotised. She let her mind wander with the music, and stared at the massive paintings, the ostentatious golden decorations, the soaring ceilings and skylights, her emotions lifted by the music. She snapped wide awake when Prince Albert rose and slowly stole to a position where he could witness Chopin’s hands as they worked magic upon the keyboard. He stood close to Annabella and Kate, and she felt the girl grow tense in her arms, and not relax until the prince resumed his seat.
When the recital ended everyone rose and remained silent as the Royal Party departed. Kate overheard something about the queen hosting a court function that evening. Some children scampered from the gallery, but most simply found their patents in the noisy crowd. Kate briefly hunted the room on tiptoe to locate the Lovelaces and deliver Annabella to the care of her parents. Earl Lovelace held a firm grip on Byron’s collar, making Kate wonder what he may have been up to, while Ralph had either ran off to the drawing room or was lost in the tumult.
“Thank you, Lion-heart,” Countess Lovelace said. “We saw you tending to Annabella during the performance. We’ll have to invite you to another dinner.”
“Perhaps tea?” Kate suggested delicately. “With Annabella?”
Annabella nodded and clapped twice in enthusiastic approval and anticipation.
“Perhaps,” Countess Lovelace said with a crooked smile.
“And, please…” Kate edged closer. “Would you please stop calling me Lion-heart?”
“Why? It suits you. It’s accurate. Is it not a nickname of which to be proud?”
Kate considered a moment. Yes… ’tis! Kat was my nickname. Jane says nicknames are silly… would she say that about King William the Lion-heart? “Do you think it ladylike?”
“Certainly! The lioness is a noble hunter. It will add mystery to your allure. The young gentlemen will be intrigued, and cautious!” Countess Lovelace laughed.
Kate managed a chuckle, still not confident, but warming to the idea that possible suitors would think twice before ever taking advantage of her in any circumstances. “The reason must never be spoken of,” she whispered to Countess Lovelace. “No one else can know what I did.”
“Ha!” Countess Lovelace gave Kate an intense look. “As though that will be the only time you act so?” She shook her head slowly, then winked. “We’ll see.”
Ralph emerged from a mass of skirts, pushing through them like a jungle explorer, accompanied by a chorus of high-pitched exclamations.
“Good! We’re all here,” Earl Lovelace declared. “Allons-y.”
Annabella gave Kate a solid hug. Earl Lovelace started for a door, guiding Byron, followed by the rest of his family.
Kate found herself in an open patch of floor, quite alone, yet all around her busy knots of people. She started a slow circle, trying to find her father, and became aware of many young men nearby. Kate thought they were whispering and stealing ganders at her. She lowered her chin, and peeked back through her eyebrows, wondering what they might be saying, then remembered herself, raised her head high, and assumed her angry arrogant expression. Although trembling inside, she strode determinedly through the open spaces, and located her father at the south end of the gallery. Upon finding him, she relaxed, lowered her eyes, but stayed a dozen paces distant because he was in conversation with Hugh Grosvenor. Before she could speculate on the significance of their dialogue a feminine voice called her name. Kate tensed and swivelled around. Constance approached, well within her rights to demand Kate’s attention since she outranked her and they had been previously introduced.
“This is Lady Kate Beaufort,” Constance said without waiting for Kate to acknowledge her or exchange pleasantries. “Lady Kate, this is my eldest brother, George, the Marquess of Stafford.”
Kate, caught off guard, still managed a decent curtsy, and took the time to compose herself. Her initial impression of George wasn’t enhanced by this closer encounter. She stood taller than him, and looked down on his large head, sloped shoulders, and ill-fitting attire.
“How do you do, Lady Kate,” he said, and stuck out a hand.
“How do you do, Lord Stafford.” Kate took the offered greeting and he shook her hand like a man, so Kate squeezed and shook back hard.
He smiled as they released their grip. “Did you enjoy the recital?” he asked.
“Very much, thank you.” Kate reconsidered him in a favourable light. He seemed the same sort of unpretentious gentleman as his father.
“I thought it quite good. My sister says you play well.”
Kate glanced sidelong at Constance. How does she know that?
“Play something for us now,” Constance said, rather like a command.
Dread bubbled in Kate’s stomach, then turned into a hot stone. She timidly scanned the piano, all the people. “I…” Her throat constricted.
“That’s not appropriate,” George said. “It’s not her house. One of us should play first. You play something, Connie.”
Constance opened her mouth, wide-eyed, then shut it. “No,” she said after a breath, assuming a sophisticated countenance of disinterest Kate knew all too well. “I don’t want to sit in this gown – it’s new.”
Kate hadn’t heard of such a practice, but understood the wisdom of preserving the flounces of a skirt. The panels of fabric could be ironed, but the lace trim required greater care. Kate’s skirt was already creased.
“I will, then,” George said with a shrug and shuffled towards the piano.
Kate felt following him was her only option. I’ll have to play after George! What should I do? What should I do? The stone in her stomach burned hotter. She slipped a handkerchief from a pocket, preparing to surreptitiously dab perspiration from her face, but too many people were now staring, and it wasn’t merely the men whispering together, Kate perceived young ladies casting haughty expressions in her direction. This isn’t right. They should be on display, not me. The débutantes will all hate me for taking the attention from them. This is a bungling muddle of colossal proportions! First I stood by the piano during the recital, now I’m going to perform?
George sat at the piano and played a simple and lively rendition of Bluebells of Scotland, making a few mistakes, smiling sheepishly at his errors. When he finished everyone nearby applauded. He stood, and motioned for Kate to sit. She eased herself onto the ornate bench, shifted, tentatively plunked a few keys, her head down.
“How about something by Monsieur Chopin?” Constance suggested.
Kate didn’t look up. What?! He might hear me. I can’t do that! She felt repulsed by the idea of playing anything other than a popular tune, and started Vive La Compagnie. George leaned on the piano and hummed along. As Kate finished flawlessly she heard applause, rose with some relief, stepped away from the bench, and curtsied to George, who bowed his head and smiled. She didn’t wait for words to be spoken, or to take her leave of Constance, simply spun on her heels and glided to the south end of the gallery, hoping her father would still be there. He was, and Jane, and the Marquess and Marchioness of Westminster, Hugh no longer present. As Kate drew near, the Westminsters departed, and she thought the Marchioness shot her a hostile glare, which caused hurt and confusion, because the woman had always been kind to her in the past.
“Lord Grosvenor asked to call upon your father,” Jane said excitedly to Kate.
“I told him he might,” Kate said, hearing someone else start playing the piano.
“You encouraged him?” Earl Beaufort asked.
Kate hesitated, and knew her silence to be an unsatisfactory response for her father.
“This may cause a problem,” he said with a frown.
“Why?” Kate asked, sensing turmoil, her nerves frayed by weeks of worry.
“The Duchesses of Sutherland and Westminster believe there is a promise between Hugh and Constance,” Earl Beaufort explained in quiet tones. “They’re two of the wealthiest families in Britain. You’re a low-ranking poor country girl compared to Constance.”
Kate digested his information for a moment. “So Constance introduced me to her brother thinking I… to distract me from Hugh? That a marquess would draw me away from an earl? The Duchess of Sutherland, specifically asked me if I had ever met George.”
“I heard her,” Jane said. “And you did?”
“A few minutes ago.” Kate nodded. “We were the first two people to play the piano.”
“What did you make of him?” Jane asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” Earl Beaufort cut in. “George is engaged, to Miss Anne Hay-Mackenzie.”
Kate knew Anne, a girl of nineteen years, and thought of her as hard-faced, and solemn.
“Perhaps it’s going to be cancelled,” Jane opined. “Which man do you favour, Kate?”
“I don’t favour either!” This isn’t fair! I knew I ought not come here today. “I…” Kate blinked back tears welling in her eyes. She spouted to her father and couldn’t stop. “I’ve only just met George – he seems pleasant. I’ve known Hugh as long as I can remember. I thought his mother liked me. You know that Janey and Bert are my friends. Hugh has been writing me letters – I wrote back. He asked me, today, to call on me. I said no. He looked so sad – I said he could call on you. He said–
“All right, Kate, calm down.” Earl Beaufort put an arm around Kate’s shoulders and turned her towards a window. He offered her his handkerchief and glanced at everyone within earshot. “Let’s decamp whilst most of the guests are diverted by the piano.”
They stepped into the small drawing room, Kate dabbing her eyes. She wanted to get downstairs and through the front door without facing anyone else. Of course, that didn’t happen. Baron William Ward, large and gregarious, appeared before them. For Earl Beaufort to press by without saying hello could only be interpreted as an insult, so he stopped, but Jane took Kate’s elbow and adroitly manoeuvred around the men, then between other knots of people.
“We’ll wait downstairs,” Jane informed Kate. “We don’t have to follow all the protocols as your father.”
They moved along the pillared walkway, Kate sneaking some peeks at the crowd below in the central hall, and descended the first flight of stairs. Kate spotted the Sutherlands standing on the landing and wanted to turn back. At that instant the duchess looked up and locked Kate’s eyes. Once again, Kate felt like a delectable mouse, this time walking straight towards the waiting cat.
“Lady Beaufort,” the Duchess of Sutherland called. “You aren’t leaving. Where is your husband?”
“We are on our way,” Jane replied. “Lord Beaufort will be along presently to take his leave of you. Lady Kate and I are going for a stroll in Green Park.”
Recognising Jane’s thoughtful efforts to facilitate an escape, Kate nodded.
“Are you?” the Duchess of Sutherland eased in front of Kate. “Did you find an opportunity to meet George?”
“I did…” Kate glanced over the duchess’s head at the statues decorating the hall; heroes, mythical beasts… lions. I’m not Kate the Mouse, I’m Kate the Lion-heart! Her worry, dread, and fear dissipated, replaced by courage, and strength, and a loathing of the entire situation. She squared her shoulders, set her mouth in a hard line, clenched her jaw, and stared down her nose into the Duchess of Sutherland’s eyes. “It was a pleasure to make Lord Stafford’s acquaintance, your grace,” Kate said without any hint of emotion. “We spoke briefly. Perhaps we may speak again, when I come out, next year, or the following year. Until then,” she lowered her tone and almost growled, “I shan’t be a pawn in anyone’s matchmaking schemes.”
“Pardon me?” the Duchess of Sutherland’s cheeks flushed and she retreated a step.
“Good day, your grace,” Jane said quickly and bobbed with a perfunctory curtsy.
“Your grace,” Kate echoed coldly, executing a long low majestic curtsy. She rose, hooked an elbow with Jane, then they continued down the last stretch of stairs.
“Did you see her face?” Jane whispered as they promenaded from the central hall.
Kate remained silent, head held high, letting the heat of her fury dissipate.
“You shouldn’t have said that,” Jane continued. “But… good for you.”
Again, Kate said nothing, recollecting words and incidents of the day.
“Will you still see Hugh Grosvenor when he calls?” Jane asked.
“I will,” Kate stated.
“Yes. And not to spite Lady Constance, or her mother, or Hugh’s mother.”
“No. I’ll see him… because I care for him.”
“Excellent!” Jane smiled.
Kate smiled too.