Amelia frowned. “Why can’t you talk to him here?”
“Because he’s on his honeymoon, and he won’t be willing to spend his last night in Hampshire chatting with me. Besides, I’ve decided to take on a small commission to design a conservatory for a house in Mayfair.”
“I think you want to be away from Catherine. I think something happened between you.”
Leo glanced at the last brilliant orange and purple vestiges of daylight. “The light is going,” he remarked in a pleasant tone. “We should head back.”
“You can’t run from your problems, you know.”
His mouth twisted in annoyance. “Why do people always say that? Of course you can run from your problems. I do it all the time, and it never fails.”
“You’re obsessed with Catherine,” Amelia persisted. “It’s obvious to everyone.”
“Now who’s being dramatic?” he asked, striding back toward Ramsay House.
“You watch everything she does.” Amelia stubbornly kept pace with him. “Whenever her name is mentioned, you’re all ears. And lately, every time I see you talking or arguing with her, you seem more alive than you have since…” She paused, seeming to think better of what she’d been about to say.
“Since when?” Leo asked, daring her to continue.
“Since before the scarlet fever.”
It was a subject they never discussed.
The year before Leo had inherited the viscountcy, a fatal epidemic of scarlet fever had swept through the village where the Hathaways had lived.
The first to go had been Laura Dillard, Leo’s fiancée.
Laura’s family had let him stay at her bedside. For three days he had watched her die in his arms, hour by hour, until she had slipped away.
Leo had gone home and collapsed with the fever, and so had Win. By some miracle they had both survived, but Win had been left an invalid. And Leo had emerged an entirely different man, scarred in ways that even he couldn’t fully catalog. He had found himself in a nightmare he couldn’t wake from. He hadn’t cared if he lived or died. The most unforgivable part was that in his torment, he had hurt his family and caused no end of problems for them. At the worst of it, when Leo had seemed bent on destroying himself, the family had made a decision. They had sent Win to recover at a clinic in France, with Leo accompanying her.
While Win’s weak lungs had regained their strength at the clinic, Leo had spent hours walking through the heat-drowsed pantiled villages of Provence, up switchback footpaths scattered with flowers, across arid fields. The sunshine, the hot blue air, the lenteur, or slowness of life, had cleared his mind and calmed his soul. He had stopped drinking except for a single glass of wine at dinner. He had sketched and painted, and finally he had grieved.
When Leo and Win had returned to England, Win had wasted no time in achieving her heart’s desire, which had been to marry Merripen.
Leo, for his part, was trying to make amends for the way he had failed his family. And above all, he was determined to avoid falling in love ever again. Now that he was aware of the fatal depth of feeling he was capable of, he would never give another human being such power over him.
“Sis,” he told Amelia ruefully, “if you have some lunatic notion that I have any kind of personal interest in Marks, forget it at once. All I intend to do is find out what skeleton she has in her closet. Knowing her, it’s probably a literal one.”
“I didn’t even know about Cat’s existence until I was twenty,” Harry Rutledge said, stretching out his long legs as he and Leo sat in the Rutledge Hotel’s clubroom. The quiet and luxurious spot, with its numerous octagonal apses, was a popular gathering place in London for foreign nobility, travelers of means, aristocrats and politicians.
Leo regarded his brother-in-law with thinly veiled skepticism. Of all the men he would have chosen to marry one of his sisters, Rutledge would certainly not have topped the list. Leo didn’t trust him. On the other hand, Harry had his good points, among them his obvious devotion to Poppy.
Harry drank from a snifter of warmed brandy, considering his words carefully before he continued. He was a handsome man, capable of great charm, but he was also ruthless and manipulative. One would expect no less from a man of his achievements, among them creating the largest and most opulent hotel in London.
“I’m reluctant to discuss Cat for several reasons,” Harry said, his green eyes guarded. “Among them the fact that I’ve never been particularly kind to her, nor did I protect her when I should have. And I regret it.”
“We all have regrets,” Leo said, taking a sip of brandy, letting the velvet fire slide down his throat. “It’s why I cling to my bad habits. One doesn’t have to start regretting something unless one stops doing it.”
Harry grinned, but sobered quickly as he stared into the flame of a small candle lamp that had been set on the table. “Before I tell you anything, I want to ask what the nature of your interest in my sister is.”
“I’m asking as her employer,” Leo said. “I’m concerned about the influence she may have over Beatrix.”
“You never questioned her influence before,” Harry shot back. “And from all accounts she’s done an excellent job with Beatrix.”
“She has. However, the revelation of this mysterious connection to you has me worried. For all I know, the two of you have been hatching some kind of plot.”