“Hello, Leo,” Beatrix said cheerfully.
“Heavens, what a sight you are,” Win exclaimed.
Leo smiled at both of them, then wrinkled his nose as he detected a bitter stench in the air. “I didn’t think it was possible for any odor to eclipse mine at the moment. What is it? Metal polish?”
“No, actually it’s…” Win looked guarded. “Well, it’s a kind of dye.”
“For hair,” Beatrix said. “You see, Miss Marks wants to darken her hair before the ball, but she was afraid of using dye from the apothecary, since he got it so wrong last time. So Cook suggested a recipe that her own mother used. You boil walnut shells and cassia bark together with vinegar and—”
“Why is Marks dyeing her hair?” Leo asked, striving to keep his tone ordinary, even as his soul revolted against the idea. That beautiful hair, gleaming gold and pale amber, covered with a dull, dark stain.
Win replied cautiously. “I believe she wishes to be less … visible … at the ball, with so many guests in attendance. I didn’t press her for answers, as I felt she was entitled to her privacy. Leo, please don’t distress her by mentioning it.”
“Does no one find it odd that we have a servant who insists on disguising herself?” Leo asked. “Is this family so bloody eccentric that we accept any manner of strangeness without even asking questions?”
“It’s not all that strange,” Beatrix said. “Many animals change their colors. Cuttlefish, for example, or certain species of frogs, and of course chameleons—”
“Excuse me,” Leo said through clenched teeth. He left the kitchen with purposeful strides, while Win and Beatrix stared after him.
“I was leading to some very interesting facts about chameleons,” Beatrix said.
“Bea, darling,” Win murmured, “perhaps you’d better go out to the stables and find Cam.”
Catherine sat at her dressing table, contemplating her own tense reflection in the looking glass. Several articles were neatly arranged in front of her: folded toweling, a comb, a pitcher and basin, and a pot filled with a strained dark sludge that looked like boot blacking. She had painted a single lock of hair with the stuff, and was waiting for it to take effect, to see what color had been imparted. After her last disaster with colorant, when her hair had turned green, she was taking no chances.
With the Hathaway ball only two days away, Catherine had no choice but to drab down her appearance as much as possible. Guests from surrounding counties would attend, as well as families from London. And as always, she was afraid of being recognized. However, as long as she obscured her appearance and kept to the corners, no one ever noticed her. Chaperones were most often spinsters or poor widows, undesirable women who had been assigned the task of watching over young girls who still had their best years ahead of them. Catherine was scarcely older than those girls, but she felt as if there were decades between herself and them.
Catherine knew that her past would catch up with her someday. And when it did, the time she had spent with the Hathaways would be over. It had been the only period of real happiness in her life. She would grieve to lose them.
All of them.
The door was flung open, shattering Catherine’s quiet contemplation. She turned in her chair and saw Leo in remarkable disarray. He was sweaty and rumpled and filthy, standing there in his stocking feet.
She jumped up to face him, recalling too late that she wore nothing but a crumpled chemise.
His hard gaze raked over her, missing no detail, and Catherine turned red in outrage. “What are you doing?” she cried. “Have you gone mad? Leave my room this instant!”
Leo closed the door and reached Catherine in two strides. He hauled her forcibly to the pitcher and basin.
“Stop it,” she screeched, flailing at him, while he pushed her head over the basin and poured water over the lock of hair she had saturated with dye. She spluttered furiously. “What is wrong with you? What are you doing?”
“Washing this slime from your hair.” He dumped the rest of the water on her head.
Catherine yelped and struggled, managing to slosh water over him as well, until there were puddles on the floor and the carpet was soaked. They fought until Catherine found herself on the wet layer of wool covering the floor. Her spectacles had flown off, leaving the room a blur. But Leo’s face was only inches above her own, his hot blue eyes staring into hers. He subdued her without effort, pinning her wrists, her torso, as if she had no more substance than a garment rippling on a clothesline. He was very heavy on her, muscle and weight and masculinity supported in the cradle of her thighs.
She twisted helplessly. She wanted him to let her go, and at the same time she wanted him to lie on her forever, his h*ps pressing hers harder, deeper. Her eyes turned wet.
“Please,” she choked out. “Please don’t hold my wrists.”
As he heard the note of fear in her voice, his face changed. He released her arms at once. She was gathered up against him, her dripping head clasped to his shoulder.
“No,” he muttered, “don’t be afraid of me. I would never—” She felt him kiss the side of her face, the edge of her jaw, the frantic working of her throat. Waves of warmth slid over her, sensation rising in the places where they pressed. She let her arms remain limp and outstretched on the floor, but her knees tightened on his body, holding him instinctively.