Ending the kiss, Catherine half expected to see Poppy and the housekeeper, Mrs. Pennywhistle, both staring at them with scandalized expressions. But as she peeked over Leo’s shoulder, she saw that the housekeeper’s back was still turned toward them.
Poppy had taken in the situation with an astute glance. “Mrs. Pennywhistle,” she said glibly, ushering the housekeeper away from the threshold, “do come out into the hallway with me, I thought I saw a dreadful stain on the carpeting the other day, and I wanted to show you … is it here? … No, perhaps over there … Oh, drat, where is it?”
Left in temporary privacy, Catherine looked into Leo’s heavy-lidded blue eyes.
“Why did you do that?” he asked, his voice husky.
She tried to think of an answer that would amuse him. “I wanted you to test my higher brain function.”
A smile tugged at the corners of his lips. Taking a deep breath, he let it out slowly. “If you have a match when you enter a dark room,” he finally said, “which would you light first—the oil lamp on the table, or the kindling in the hearth?”
Catherine squinted as she considered the question. “The lamp.”
“The match,” he said, shaking his head. His tone was soft and chiding. “Marks, you’re not even trying.”
“Another one,” she prompted, and he complied without hesitation, his head bending over hers. He gave her a long, smoldering kiss, and she relaxed against him, her fingers sinking into his hair. He finished the kiss with a voluptuous nudge.
“Is it legal or illegal for a man to marry his widow’s sister?” he asked.
“Illegal,” she said languidly, trying to pull his head back to hers.
“Impossible, because he’s dead.” Leo resisted her efforts and looked down at her with a crooked grin. “It’s time to stop.”
“No,” she protested, straining toward him.
“Easy, Marks,” he whispered. “One of us has to have some self-control, and it really should be you.” He brushed his lips against her forehead. “I have another present for you.”
“What is it?”
“Look in my pockets.” He jumped a little and laughed unsteadily as she began to search him. “No, you little ravisher, not my trouser pockets.” Grabbing her wrists in his hands, he held them suspended in the air, as if he were trying to subdue a playful kitten. Seeming unable to resist, he leaned forward and took her mouth again. Being kissed while he held her wrists might have frightened her once, but now it awakened something deep and ticklish inside.
Leo tore his mouth away and released her with a gasping laugh. “Coat pocket. My God, I want to—no, I won’t say it. Yes, there’s your present.”
Catherine drew out an object wrapped in soft cloth. Gently she unwrapped a new pair of spectacles made of silver … gleaming and perfect, the oval lenses sparkling. Marveling at the workmanship, she drew a finger along one of the intricate filigreed earpieces, all the way to the curved tip. “They’re so beautiful,” she said in wonder.
“If they please you, we’ll have another pair made in gold. Here, let me help you…” Leo gently drew the old spectacles off her face, seeming to savor the gesture.
She put the new ones on. They felt light and secure on the bridge of her nose. As she looked around the room, everything was wonderfully detailed and in focus. In her excitement, she jumped up and hurried to the looking glass that hung over the entryway table. She inspected her own glowing reflection.
“How pretty you are.” Leo’s tall, elegant form appeared behind hers. “I do love spectacles on a woman.”
Catherine’s smiling gaze met his in the silvered glass. “Do you? What an odd preference.”
“Not at all.” His hands came to her shoulders, lightly fondling up to her throat and back again. “They emphasize your beautiful eyes. And they make you look capable of secrets and surprises—which, as we know, you are.” His voice lowered. “Most of all I love the act of removing them—getting you ready for a tumble in bed.”
She shivered at his bluntness, her eyes half closing as she felt him pull her back against him. His mouth went to the side of her neck.
“You like them?” Leo murmured, kissing her soft skin.
“Yes.” Her head listed to the side as his tongue traced a subtle path along her throat. “I … I don’t know why you went to such trouble. It was very kind.”
Leo’s dark head lifted, and he met her drowsy gaze in the looking glass. His fingers went to the side of her throat, stroking as if to rub the feel of his mouth into her skin. “I wasn’t being kind,” he murmured, a smile touching his lips. “I merely wanted you to see clearly.”
I’m beginning to, she was tempted to tell him, but Poppy returned to the apartment before she was able.
That night Catherine slept badly, stumbling into the nightmare world that seemed as real, if not more real, than the infinitely kinder world she inhabited in her waking moments.
It was part dream, part memory, the recollection of running through her grandmother’s house until she had found the old woman sitting at her desk, writing in a ledger.
Heedlessly Catherine threw herself at her grandmother’s feet and buried her face in the voluminous black skirts. She felt the old woman’s skeletal fingers slide under her wet chin and lift it.
Her grandmother’s face was masked with a sediment of powder, the ashy whiteness contrasting with her artificially darkened brows and hair. Unlike Althea, she wore no lip rouge, only colorless salve.