And then there were his words. His former love had married his brother? She tried to picture Luke choosing one of her sisters for his wife. Her chest contracted, her heart thumping painfully in her chest. My goodness, that would hurt and they’d only shared a single kiss.
He slid to the side and her breath rushed out though her blood still rushed in her ears. “Better?” he asked, as he took the last several steps to return to the path.
“Much,” she said, stepping off the ledge. “Though you frightened me half to death.” She attempted to relax her fingers, which were currently clutching the cats as if they might run at any moment, despite the fact they were curled half asleep in her arms. “Back to our conversation. Just to be clear, your first love married your brother?”
He hesitated. “I found out on the night I’d planned to propose. In fairness to her, she might not have known I was about to ask, but we’d done far more than was socially acceptable and I thought the offer was a foregone conclusion.”
Her stomach flipped over and if she weren’t holding the cats, she might have hugged him. “That is so terrible. How could she do that to you?” How could a woman be physical with one man and then marry his brother? It defied reason as far as Adrianna was concerned.
He shrugged. “That’s the catch with society. Everyone is vying for the best position, the most connections. She was a perfect lady, of course she had to take the offer from the current earl. The spare would never do. It was expected by everyone, even her family and especially herself. I knew she cared what the rest of society thought. She took pride in being socially successful. In retrospect, I should have realized that I was her secret and not the man she wanted to marry but—”
She squeaked as a dawning realization hit her. “She’s your sister-in-law then and your brother died and now you’re the earl.” He was family with the woman who’d betrayed him.
He turned back to her, his face grim. “Yes. Tawdry, isn’t it? I likely shouldn’t tell you this but she attempted to rekindle our relationship after my brother’s death. For me, it made everything so much worse.”
Worse? “That is absolutely awful.” She leaned down and kissed Mittens, and then started walking toward the house. “You called her pure, but honestly, I don’t see it at all. That viper has a black heart.”
He laughed. Not a joyous sound but a grim passing of noise over the throat. “True. But how would I trust that another woman wasn’t the same? In every way she’d seemed so perfect.”
They’d reached the kitchen door and she opened the split-panel, setting Mittens and the first kitten inside. Her lip twisted down as she considered her answer. “I do see your point.” Reaching into his arms, she started to remove the two cats he held. He quickly let go of Jinx, but with Socks, he resisted for just a moment before he handed the little black-and-white bundle over. “She’ll be looking for a home soon.”
He scowled at Adrianna. “You’re not suggesting I take a cat?”
She kissed Socks’s little nose before she carefully set the tiny kitten in the kitchen. “Perhaps I am. If you can’t open your heart to a woman, and I’m not certain I blame you, maybe you should start with something smaller. She likes you and you like little Socks too. I can see it in the way you hold her.”
“How did you know she liked me?” Luke asked as he rubbed his face with his hand. Did he want to open his heart at all? Even a relationship with a cat frightened him a bit, but then again…the affection had been nicer than he’d imagined.
“Cats are simple. If they like you, they cuddle up to you. Sure, they’ll swipe at you now and then. But that’s just their nature.”
He cocked a brow. “I suppose that’s true. And women? Will they swipe at a man too?”
She couldn’t quite keep the smile from her face. “Oh, most certainly. You shouldn’t let a little swipe deter you.”
He moved closer and her breath caught in her throat. “But if they like you will they cuddle up to you right away?”
She swallowed down that breath. “I suppose they do.”
“But women are far more complicated than cats. How will I know that she won’t betray me later when a bigger, better male comes along?”
Adrianna tapped her chin, mostly to buy time. She wasn’t certain she knew the answer he sought and somehow, she sensed her words were terribly important to him. “I don’t know. Which is my problem in life really. I’m only eighteen and I’ve only ever lived here in Seabridge Gate and people are reasonably honest and straightforward. I’ve no idea how to navigate the bigger world or the people who say one thing and mean another.” She closed her eyes. “Sometimes I worry that when we travel to London, I’ll never keep myself and my sisters safe. Or even if I successfully aid them, I won’t know how to help myself.”
“You’re right to worry about London.” His fingers brushed her elbow. “Keep sharpening your sword, you’ll need it.”
“Sharpening? I think
I’ve proven my blade quite dull. Despite my best attempt to push you away yesterday, here you are still in Seabridge Gate.” She dipped her head, letting the brim of her hat cover her face.
“Shouldn’t you allow your father to worry about all of this?” He pulled her closer, wanting to protect her too despite himself.
Her chin tilted up as he dipped back to keep the brim of her hat from swiping his face. “My father?” She shook her head. “I love him dearly, but he isn’t equipped for the job. Just think about what you’ve seen in the past two days. I’ve been alone on the beach with you. Ophelia had a secret picnic last night. He’s far too trusting of everyone and he’s forgotten that the rest of the world isn’t like here.”
“And so you’ve decided you need to take up the roll?” He’d leaned closer, his own face dipping under the wide brim, which created an air of intimacy. Which likely explained what she said next.
“I like to think that I’m the toughest, strongest, most worldly Moorish sister but if I can’t even get one lord desperate to leave my village, how will I keep my sisters safe?”
Luke tried not to laugh. He really did. But her concern was so…ridiculous. She was so young. The responsibility shouldn’t have been hers in the first place. His chuckle bubbled from his chest, a welcome relief from their earlier conversation. “Adrianna. Please.”