“No, that would only start us on a course of prolonged blackmail. And Latimer would never keep quiet. Listen to me, Cat … Harry and I have discussed how to manage the problem. Suffice it to say that in a few days, Latimer will find himself in a position in which he’ll either end up in prison or be forced to flee England.”
“For what crime?” she asked, her eyes widening.
“There’s a long list to choose from,” Leo said. “He’s tried nearly everything. And I’d rather not tell you the specific offense, because it’s not appropriate for a lady’s ears.”
“You can make him leave England? Truly?”
He felt her relax a little, her shoulders slumping. “That would be a relief,” she said. “However…”
Catherine angled her face away from his searching gaze. “It doesn’t really matter. Because what he said was no less than the truth. I am a fraud.”
“What self-pitying tripe. You were a fraud as an aspiring prostitute. As a proper and well-mannered lady who holds an irresistible attraction for ferrets, you’re completely authentic.”
“Not all ferrets. Just Dodger.”
“Proof of his excellent taste.”
“Don’t try to be charming,” she muttered. “There’s nothing more annoying than someone trying to make one feel better when one wants to wallow.”
Leo bit back a grin. “I’m sorry,” he said contritely. “Go on and wallow. You were doing so well at it until I interrupted.”
“Thank you.” She heaved a sigh and waited a moment. “Blast,” she finally said, “I can’t do it now.” Her fingers crept further into his, and he smoothed his thumb over the backs of her knuckles. “I want to correct something,” Catherine said. “I was never an aspiring prostitute.”
“What did you aspire to?”
“To live somewhere peaceful, and be safe.”
“Yes, that’s all. And I haven’t managed to do it yet. Although … the past few years have been the closest I’ve ever gotten.”
“Marry me,” Leo told her, “and you can have both. You’ll be safe, and you’ll live in Hampshire. And you’ll have me, which is obviously icing on the cake.”
A reluctant laugh escaped her. “Rather more icing than the cake needs.”
“There is no such thing as too much icing, Marks.”
“My lord, I don’t believe that you sincerely want to marry me as much as you want to have your way.”
“I want you to marry me so that I don’t have my way all the time,” he said, which was the truth. “It’s not good for me to be indulged. And you tell me no quite frequently.”
She gave a huff of wry amusement. “I haven’t said it to you nearly enough lately.”
“Then let’s practice in your hotel suite. I’ll try to have my way with you, and you can try to refuse me.”
“There, you see? You’re sharpening your skills already.”
Leo directed the driver to take them to the alley that bordered the mews behind the hotel. It was a far more discreet way to enter than parading through the lobby. They went up the back stairs and along the hallway that led to Catherine’s suite. The hotel was extraordinarily quiet at that hour, everyone either out for their evening pursuits, or sleeping soundly.
When they reached Catherine’s door, Leo waited as Catherine searched for the key in the little knitted silk bag she had looped around one wrist.
“Allow me,” Leo said when she had found the key. Taking it from her, he unlocked the door.
“Thank you.” Catherine took back the key and turned to face him at the threshold.
Leo stared down into her fine-boned face, reading the emotions that flickered in her eyes: despair, refusal, yearning. “Invite me in,” he said softly.
She shook her head. “You must go. It’s not seemly for you to stand here.”
“The night’s still young. What will you do in there, alone?”
“No, you won’t. You’ll stay awake as long as possible, worrying about nightmares.” Seeing that he had scored a point, Leo pressed his advantage. “Let me in.”
Leo stood in the doorway, tugging off his gloves casually, as if he had all the time in the world. Catherine went dry-mouthed as she watched him. She needed him. She needed to be held and comforted, and he knew it. If she allowed him into her hotel suite, there was no question as to what would happen next.
She started as the sound of voices came from the end of the long hallway. Reaching out hastily, she grabbed the lapels of Leo’s coat, pulled him across the threshold, and closed them both safely inside the room. “Hush,” she whispered.
Leo braced his hands on either side of her, caging her against the door. “You know how to keep me quiet.”
The voices became louder as people advanced further along the hallway.
Smiling into her tense face, Leo began in a perfectly audible tone, “Marks, I wonder if—”
She drew in an exasperated breath and crammed her mouth against his, anything to shut him up. Leo fell obligingly silent, kissing her with bold and avid pleasure. Even through the elegant layers of his clothes, she could feel the heat and hardness of him. Desperately she fumbled with his clothes, pushing her hands beneath his coat where his body heat had collected.