“I tried being nice to you, once or twice. It didn’t go well.”
“Did you? I never noticed.” Her skin, already pink from the bath, turned a deeper shade. “I was suspicious. Mistrustful. And you … were everything I feared.”
Leo’s arms tightened at the admission. He looked down at her with a pensive gaze, as if he were untangling something in his mind, approaching a new realization. The blue eyes were warmer than she had ever seen them. “Let’s make a bargain, Marks. From now on, instead of assuming the worst of each other, we’ll try to assume the best. Agreed?”
Catherine nodded, transfixed by his gentleness. Somehow those few simple sentences seemed to have wrought a greater change between them than everything that had gone before.
Leo released her carefully. She went to bed while he washed awkwardly in a tub that couldn’t begin to accommodate a man his size. She lay and watched him drowsily, the warmth of her body gathering between the sheets of the clean, dry bed. And in spite of all the problems that awaited her, she sank into a deep sleep.
In her dreams, she went back to the day she had turned fifteen. She had been parentless for five years, living with her grandmother and Aunt Althea. Her mother had died during that time. She had never known exactly when this event occurred, having been informed well after the fact. She had asked Althea if she might visit her ailing mother, and Althea had replied that she had already died.
Even knowing that her mother had suffered a fatal wasting disease, knowing there was no hope, the news had come as a shock. Catherine had started to weep, but Althea had grown impatient and snapped, “There’s no use crying. It happened long before now, and she’s been in the ground since high summer.” Which had left Catherine with a bewildering sense of lateness, of off-timing, like a theatergoer who had applauded at the wrong moment. She couldn’t grieve properly because she had missed the appropriate opportunity for grieving.
They had lived in a small house in Marylebone, a shabby but respectable dwelling lodged between a dental surgeon’s office with a replica of a set of teeth hanging from its sign, and a subscription library supported by private funds. The library was owned and run by her grandmother, who had gone there every day to work.
It had been the most tantalizing place in the world, this heavily frequented building with its vast and hidden collection of books. Catherine had stared at the place from her window, imagining how lovely it would be to browse among rooms of old volumes. Undoubtedly the air had smelled like vellum and leather and book dust, a literary perfume that filled the quiet rooms. She had told Althea that she wanted to work there one day, a declaration that had earned an odd smile from her aunt, and a promise that she undoubtedly would.
However, despite the sign that clearly proclaimed its purpose as a library for the use of distinguished gentlemen, Catherine had gradually realized there was something wrong about the place. No one ever left with any books.
Whenever Catherine mentioned this incongruity, Althea and her grandmother became cross, the same reaction they had displayed when she asked if her father would ever return for her.
On Catherine’s fifteenth birthday, she had been given two new dresses. One was blue and one white, with long skirts that had reached all the way to the floor, and waists that had fitted at her own natural waist, instead of childishly high. From now on, Aunt Althea had told her, she would put her hair up and behave as a woman. She was no longer a child. Catherine had absorbed this promotion with pride and anxiety, wondering what would be expected of her now that she had become a woman.
Althea had proceeded to explain, her long, lean face looking harder than usual, her gaze not quite able to meet Catherine’s. The establishment next door, as suspected, was not a lending library. It was a house of prostitution, for which she had worked since the age of twelve. It was an easy enough occupation, she assured Catherine … let the man do as he pleased, turn your mind elsewhere, and take his money. No matter what his desires or how he used your body, there was relatively little discomfort as long as you didn’t resist.
“I don’t want to do that,” Catherine had said, turning ashen as she realized why the advice was being given.
Althea had raised her plucked, arched brows. “What else do you think you’re fit for?”
“Anything but that.”
“Mutton-headed girl, do you know how much we’ve spent on your upkeep? Do you have any idea what a sacrifice it was to take you on? Of course not—you think it was owed to you. But now it’s time to repay. You’re not being asked to do anything that I haven’t done. Do you think you’re better than me?”
“No,” Catherine said, shamed tears slipping from her eyes. “But I’m not a prostitute.”
“Each one of us is born for a purpose, my dear.” Althea’s voice was calm, even kind. “Some people are born into privilege, some are blessed with artistic talent or natural intelligence. You, unfortunately, are average in every regard … average intellect, average wit, and no distinguishable talent. You have inherited beauty, however, and a whore’s nature. Therefore, we know what your purpose is, don’t we?”
Catherine flinched. She tried to sound composed, but her voice shook. “Being average in most regards doesn’t mean I have the makings of a prostitute.”
“You’re deceiving yourself, child. You are the product of two families of faithless women. Your mother was incapable of being constant to anyone. Men found her irresistible, and she could never resist being wanted. And as for our side … your great-grandmother was a procuress, and she trained her daughter in the business. Then it was my turn, and now it is yours. Of all the girls who work for us, you will be the most fortunate. You won’t be hired out to any man who comes off the street. You’ll be the luminary of our little business. One man at a time, for a negotiated period. You’ll last much longer that way.”