Catriona looked up in surprise as her cousin came into the room. She put down her book in pleased welcome and smiled. "George," she said. "How nice to see you." She held out her hand.
George Talbot came across the room to take it. "You're looking very well, Kate. How is the new addition?"
"Very well, thank you. It's nice to have a daughter at last." She gestured him to a chair. "Will you have some tea?"
"No, no, thank you." He sounded unusually abrupt, and she looked at him inquiringly. He caught her gaze and smiled a little ruefully. "Do you know that when you were seventeen I thought it was not possible for anyone to be more beautiful?" He looked from her to the portrait that hung on the far wall and then back to her again. "I was wrong," he said.
"Pooh," she retorted briskly. "Elizabeth is far more beautiful than I. How is she, by the way? And your son?"
"Fine," he answered absently and answered her subsequent questions with only half his attention. It was true, he thought, his wife's oval face and classic lineaments were more beautiful than his cousin's more irregular features. But Catriona had more than beauty. She had an intense kind of magnetism he had never encountered in another woman. He fixed an attentive expression on his face and looked at her, at the magnificent high cheekbones, the brilliant slanting eyes, the generous mouth. Everything about her seemed to say that here was a woman who would go to the whole lengths of heaven or of hell, a woman capable of such abandon, such profound depths of passion...?
His thoughts broke off in some confusion as she finished speaking and looked at him expectantly. He had no idea of what she had just said.
He cleared his throat. "I was going through some of the books at the Hall the other day, Kate," he began, and his voice sounded loud in his own ears.
Her eyes opened widely--a sudden burst of green--and she laughed. "Has the weather reduced you to the bookcase, George? I didn't realize things were quite that desperate."
He smiled a little reluctantly. As she well knew, he had never been the literary type. "I came across a paper that someone had put into a copy of Cook's Voyages." He was refusing to rise to her bait. His face sobered, and he said heavily, "I think you had better look at it."
Catriona reached out to take the paper he was offering her. She smoothed it on her lap and then looked up in bewilderment. "But this is a marriage record," she said.
"Yes. Look at the names."
She did and went suddenly very pale. "Richard Talbot and Flora MacIan." She raised her head and stared at George. "What does this mean?" she almost whispered.
"It means, apparently, that your father and mother were married after all. Look at the date."
"1798," she read.
"And you were born in 1799."
He shrugged. "It seems, Kate, that you are legitimate."
She stared at the paper. "I can't believe it," she said at last very slowly. "It was in a book?"
"Yes." He laughed harshly. "Cook's Voyages. I've never looked at my own copy. I read the copy at the Castle when I was in school." He moved his feet restlessly on the carpet. "I wonder what Edmund will say."
"Edmund?" She looked at him a little sharply. "What should Edmund have to say about it?"
After all these years her voice still changed when she said his name. George, wondered if she realized it. He wondered if her husband did. "I think he might have a great deal to say," George managed to get out.
Catriona rose and walked over to the window, which looked out on the south lawn of the house. Her figure, he noticed, was as lithe and slim as ever despite the three-month-old baby upstairs in the nursery. She stood with her back to him, silent, looking out over the wide expanse of green.
Coming across the grass toward the house was a man accompanied by two little boys. One of the children was riding on his shoulders while the other trotted beside him. They all looked very muddy. They were laughing. Then, as if he sensed he was being watched, the man looked up and saw her at the window. With the laughter still vivid on his face he pointed her out to the children, both of whom waved vigorously.
Catriona waved back to her husband and her sons, then slowly turned back to face her cousin. She glanced down at the paper in her hand. It couldn't make any difference now, she thought. But once ... God, how important it would have been to her ten years ago.
"It can't matter now," Catriona said to George. "To Edmund or to--anyone else."
"I think perhaps it might," George replied grimly.
"Don't look so upset," she said softly. "How on earth do you think it came to be in Captain Cook's Voyages?"
"Someone put it there," said George.
Catriona looked puzzled. "Put it there?" she repeated absently, her mind clearly elsewhere.
He changed the subject. "Who was that on the lawn just now?"
"The boys and their father. They all looked extremely disreputable." Catriona sighed. "Do you know, George, I still can't believe that Diccon has gone away to school! I miss him terribly."
"You can't keep your sons children forever," said George.
"I suppose not." She smiled at him. "I have at least one child securely in my nest, though. And it's her teatime. Would you mind if I deserted you for a few minutes?"
"Of course I don't mind," he replied. "Babies come first."
She patted his cheek as she went by his chair, and smiled into his brown eyes. "Don't worry," she said steadily. "It can't make any difference at all--now."
Her daughter was awake and hungry, and as she sat in the peace of her bedroom, with the silky brown head of her nursing baby at her breast, Catriona looked back. Back to the time when that record would have made a difference. Back to the time, nineteen years ago, when she had come to Evesham Castle, the bastard cousin of the duke.