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"I am very sensible of the honor you pay me by offering for me, Lord Norris, but I fear we should not suit," Kate told the elegant young man lounging against the mantel.
This seemed to afford the young man a certain measure of relief, for he returned her quizzing smile and replied, "Of course it shall be as you wish, Miss Montgomery. But perhaps I should list my prospects for you before you reject me so cruelly."
Kate chuckled and said, "Oh, run along, Charles. Are there more?"
"Whatever can you mean, Miss Montgomery? More what?"
"You know very well, you horrid boy, but never mind. I'm sure you have taken more than your allotted time already, what with flirting with my sister before your flattering proposal to me. She will be very annoyed with you, you know."
Lord Norris drew himself up to his full six-foot height and bent a glowering look upon her, which he was unable to sustain. Nevertheless, as his word was involved and he was unable to respond in kind, he merely murmured, "You are too kind, Miss Montgomery. I shall find my way out."
When the parlor door had closed behind him, Kate strolled to the window, puzzled but still amused. Her sister Susan burst through the door almost immediately and cried, "Lord Norris, too? Whatever has come over all of them? Was that the last? I may never speak to him again," she finished somewhat obscurely.
"Now, Susan, try not to be vexed with Charles. It is obviously some game they are all playing and he could not very well decline to participate if Geoff and Terence did. Drat, I fear that is not the last. Here is his brother riding up now," she remarked, her eyes fixed onthe mounted youth approaching on the carriage entry.
"Wayne? This really is too much, Kate. Why, you might have accepted one of them. How were they to know you would not?"
"You are too complimentary, Susan. I presume you find me too old and infirm for all these boys. Terence Marsh is only a year younger than I, after all, and I really cannot believe that I should make such an unappealing wife when all is said and done." Kate tossed her brown curls vigorously and attempted a demure expression.
"You are mistaking my intent, Kate. You know I did not mean . . ."
Here she was interrupted by the butler, who stiffly presented himself in the doorway and announced in a disapproving voice the Honourable Wayne Norris. Sampson did not have anything against this young person in particular, but he did not understand and could not approve the comings and goings of four of the countryside's most eligible bachelors in one afternoon. He cast a pleading look at Kate, who merely grinned exasperatedly at him.
The Honourable Wayne Norris wore a more studious air than his elder brother and looked uncomfortable in his town clothes. Whereas the others had arrived in riding jackets, buckskin breeches, and top boots, Wayne had seen fit to honor the occasion (his first proposal, after all) with his idea of London finery--a close-fitting coat of dark blue superfine, moderately high shirt points, a sparkling cravat, and buff-colored pantaloons. Even his boots must have been given a rub in the hall, for they showed not the least trace of mud. His face was flushed, and he stuttered as he greeted the young women. He alone did not know precisely where to begin; and, after stooping quickly to retrieve the gloves which fell from his nerveless hands, he looked helplessly at Kate.
Kate took pity on the young man (who must be five years my junior, she thought, somewhat annoyed) and suggested, "Did you wish a word in private with me, Wayne?"
"Y-yes. That is, if Miss Susan does not mind. I should not like to inconvenience you if you are busy."
"Not at all, Wayne," Kate sighed. Her sister departed reluctantly and made an attempt to leave the door ajar, but closed it swiftly at Kate's frown. "May I offer you some refreshment?"
"Yes. No. Thank you, but I think not today. I have come on a very important matter, Miss Kate," he intoned in his serious young voice, which threatened to break at any moment.
"Please sit down, Wayne. I feel sure you will be more comfortable."
"No, thank you, I feel it would not be appropriate, perhaps. Though I am not sure. You wouldn't mind if I stood, would you?"
"No, Wayne, if you will forgive my seating myself."
"Certainly. Of course. Yes, you must be seated. Why have I kept you standing about this way? Shameful of me." He groaned and dropped his gloves again.
"Not at all." Kate arranged herself comfortably on the blue velvet sofa, which complemented her jonquil muslin, and waited for him to speak. When he continued to stare at her, she prodded him gently. "You had something important to discuss with me, Wayne?"
"Yes. I mean, very important. I have come to ask you to marry me," he blurted, clenching his long, thin hands in an agony of despair.
"No, really? Well, Wayne, I shall answer you as I have answered the others. I am very sensible of the honor you do me by offering for me, but I fear we should not suit. There, now, it is over. I do not suppose you would be any more interested in telling me what is going forward than the others, would you?"
"I ... I ... I ... Thank you, Miss Kate. I . . ."
"Really, Wayne, you are not supposed to thank a young woman for refusing you, dear boy." Kate laughed, taking the sting out of her words. "If you cannot bring yourself to tell me, I shall say no more. Thank you for calling, Wayne. Sampson will see you out," she said and turned to tug the pull with more energy than was actually necessary.
When the young man had departed in red-faced confusion, Susan again descended on her sister, more intrigued than ever. Kate shook her head perplexedly and remarked, "Really, Susan, it has come to the point of insult. I shall be the talk of the neighborhood for this day's work by those silly gudgeons. Whatever did I do to deserve this?"
"Ralph probably knows. I am sure he had no need to go to Bristol at all today. He just wished to be away when the feathers started to fly." Susan gave a jerk at her skirts as though she were shaking her brother.
"I don't doubt you are right. We'll have to await his return and see if we can get the truth from him. Though you can be sure he won't like it." Kate sat musing on the sofa and speculated, "It must have to do with the Assembly last night at the Clifton Rooms. I wonder . . ."
"Mr. Benjamin Karst to see you, Miss Montgomery," Sampson announced in even frostier accents than he had used for poor Wayne Norris. This new arrival, however, was not in the least like the shy Wayne. He strode in wearing a cheeky smile and tossing a snuff box from hand to hand. The bow he made to the sisters was exaggeratedly elegant, and he was not at a loss for words.
Mr. Karst turned a charming smile on Susan and addressed her with polite gravity. "My dear Miss Susan, a pleasure to see you again. You are looking enchanting. I wonder if you would mind if I sought a word alone with your sister?"
"Not at all, Mr. Karst," Susan replied, dimpling. "Have you come on an important errand?" she asked pertly.
"Yes, indeed I have. But it is for your sister's ears alone," he answered solemnly.
Susan gave a magnificent sniff and stalked from the room. Kate, who had known all the other young gentlemen who called that day since childhood, had only met Mr. Karst the previous evening at the Assembly Rooms in Clifton. She surveyed him critically from his curly rust-colored locks to his polished boots. It was all very well for old friends to take part in this hoax, but she was not prepared for a stranger.
"May I offer you some refreshment, sir?" she asked coldly.
"Yes, if you please. I find myself in great need of a glass of wine."
Kate narrowed her eyes thoughtfully at his impudent tone as she summoned the butler. She refused to be goaded and proceeded to discuss the state of the weather in fatiguing detail.
Mr. Karst watched her closely and admired her poise in the face of this fantastic onslaught of suitors. Her brown curls were arranged more casually than the previous evening, and worn under a wisp of lace which he presumed was meant for a cap. His study did not cause the large brown eyes to waver nor the arched brows to lift. She was attractive, if not beautiful, with a full mouth and high forehead, a straight, short nose, and a determined chin. There was an openness about her countenance which made him feel slightly uncomfortable in the present circumstances, but she sat at her ease, the trimness of her form enhanced by the jonquil gown.
When Sampson had with a snap set the silver tray bearing one glass and a bottle of fine Madeira on the side table, he unknowingly imitated Susan by giving a pronounced sniff before departing. Mr. Karst, at a sign from Kate, helped himself to a glass of wine and nonchalantly seated himself on a Chippendale chair close to the sofa.
"My dear Miss Montgomery," Karst began lazily, as he took a pinch of snuff from the little enameled box, "I hope you will allow me to call you Kate."
"I think not, Mr.... Forgive me, I have forgotten your name."
"Karst, ma'am. Benjamin Karst." His snapping eyes betrayed his momentary annoyance, then he smiled with what he undoubtedly considered a most winning grace and continued, "I fear I have been presumptuous. But I shall not be deterred. I know we have met only briefly and yet I am moved by your beauty, your wit, your superior understanding to declare myself." The tone of mockery was undaunted by the 'Harumph' which issued from the object of his attentions. "I would be the happiest of men were you to allow me to make you my wife."
"Would you? How kind of you, Mr.... ah ... Karst. And tell me, sir, what are your prospects?" Kate asked softly.
"I assure you they are very good. I reached my majority two years ago and came into a most profitable estate but thirty miles from here. It includes an elegant manor house over which you would preside to perfection." Mr. Karst felt rather pleased with himself for this touch.
"I am intrigued. Where is this estate?"
"Not far from Yeovil, Miss Montgomery. Very pretty country it is there."
"Indeed. And your family, Mr. Karst? Tell me of them. I must weigh the matter carefully, you know, as I am no longer in the first blush of youth. But then we appear to be of an age, so no doubt you will understand."
There was no gainsaying that this gambit left Mr. Karst nonplussed, but Kate managed not to show her delight. Instead she puckered her face in a caricature of concentration and concern, as Mr. Karst's face paled visibly.
"I am three and twenty, Miss Montgomery, and...."
"I knew it!" she declared triumphantly. "We are of an age!"
"And my family, as I was saying, though it did not come over with the Conqueror, is a very ancient and respected one. My father purchased the late Marquess of Trentmere's estate ten miles from here several years ago, and my parents, my sister Selina, and I have resided there since."
"I thought you had arrived since I went to Daventry three years ago. And how do you find the neighborhood, Mr. Karst?" Kate was in charge of the situation now, and she watched the young man squirm as she pressed him for more and more details about himself, his family, and his position.
It would obviously have been intolerably rude with a newly met acquaintance to have asked the half of the questions she now bombarded him with, but she had the protection of considering him a possible suitor. Not by a flicker of the eyes or a twitch of the lips did she betray her profound amusement at his discomfort. She could not have been so cruel to her old friends, though she could have cheerfully wrung their necks, but on this stranger who had lent himself to an apparently senseless hoax she could wreak her revenge. Finally, a little ashamed of herself, she put an end to the charade.
"Mr. Karst, you have been most patient and gratifyingly explicit in answer to my very personal questions. I now know more about you than you could possibly wish me to. I am sorry to have so discomfited you. Believe me, our conversation will go no further. I feel certain we should not suit, Mr. Karst, though I am conscious of the honor you do me in offering for me. Never do so again." She laughed, inviting him to share her joke.
Mr. Karst was not devoid of a sense of humor, fortunately, and promised with becoming sincerity not to broach the subject of marriage again. Kate rose and gave him her hand in parting, saying, "You may now call me Kate, if you wish."
"Nothing would give me more pleasure, Kate," he responded ruefully. "I was worried for a moment there."
"And you deserved to be. For I would tolerate this prank from my friends, Mr. Karst, but not from a stranger. I shall not quiz you on its source, for I gather you are bound to secrecy. But I shall get to the bottom of it."
"I have no doubt you shall, Kate, if this is a sample of your tactics. Try your brother. And do call me Benjamin. We deserve to be friends now, I hope."
"I hope so, too, Benjamin."
When he had left and Susan once again appeared, Kate was working at her embroidery frame, smiling to herself. "Why was he here so long, Kate? You surely did not accept him! You met him only last evening."
"No, goose. But it was very wrong of him to take part in this mischief, and so I let him know. I think there were no hard feelings."
"Do you look for more of them, Kate? Did you find out anything from him?"
"I didn't press him. They are obviously sworn to reveal nothing, but he did suggest that Ralph knows the whole story. Is he back yet?"
"No, and I have kept a watch for him. How could he be a party to such a prank against you, Kate? Your own brother!" Susan exclaimed with disgust.
"Ralph would only see the humor in it, you know, and would not have the sensibility to look beyond to the embarrassment for me. Ralph has never been particularly noted for his tact, I fear, unless he has developed some since I departed for Aunt Eleanor's," Kate rejoined wryly.
"Ramshackle fellow. He cannot know the meaning of the word, I'll be bound. I think perhaps there are no more, as Mr. Karst was here so long that another was sure to have shown up by now if there were. Did you do something outrageous at the Assembly that I did not see?"
"Not that I am aware of. How should I? It was pleasant to see everyone again, and I enjoyed myself enormously."
"Well, it cannot be that they have just heard of your inheritance, for that has been general knowledge these three years past." Susan did not heed the frown on her sister's countenance, but continued blithely, "Though, to be sure, you have not been around to be offered for since you became such an heiress. Still, I do not see that that would have produced five eligible partis on one day for you. I am most distressed that Lord Norris was one of them, you know, Kate, for Mama and I had thought he was showing a decided preference for me."
"And so he is. Don't be such a nodcock. It was only a game to him, as with the others, though God knows How poor Wayne got involved in it."
"Lord Norris shall pay for this," Susan promised, with a flounce of her skirts and a twinkle in her eye.
"I cannot doubt it. But he can be no more than twenty, Susan, and he must still be a ward of the Earl of Winterton."
"What does that matter? He is older than I am, and I think even the Earl could not find it an unsuitable match."
"No, I suppose not, but the Earl is not particularly noted for his reasonableness, if I remember correctly. However, this whole prank has convinced me that the young men hereabouts are by far too unoccupied with serious matters. I imagine it would be entertaining to do something about that," Kate mused thoughtfully.
"Oh, Lord, and you are but just come home," Susan sighed.