“Poor Althea,” Catherine whispered, pressing the handkerchief against her welling eyes.
“You’re very kind, to have any sympathy at all for her. I’m sure I wouldn’t.”
“What about William?”
“He ran off before they could arrest him. I heard Harry and Leo discussing it—they’re going to commission a runner to find him.”
“I don’t want that,” Catherine protested. “I want them to let him go.”
“I have no doubt Leo will agree to whatever you ask,” Poppy said. “But why? After what that dreadful man did to you—”
“William was a victim, as surely as I,” Catherine said earnestly. “He was only trying to survive. Life was brutally unfair to him.”
“And to you, dear. But you made something far better of it than he did.”
“But I had Harry. And I had you and your family.”
“And Leo,” Poppy said, a smile in her voice. “I would say you have him without question. For a man who was so determined to go through life as an observer, he’s certainly been pulled back into the stream. Because of you.”
“Would you mind if I marry him, Poppy?” she asked almost timidly.
Poppy hugged her from behind, and rested her head briefly against Catherine’s. “I’m sure I speak for all the Hathaways in saying that we would be eternally grateful if you would marry him. I can’t imagine who else would dare to take him on.”
After a light supper of toast and broth, Catherine went to bed and dozed for a while, waking every now and then with a fearful start. Each time she was reassured to see Poppy reading in a chair by the bed, her hair gleaming like mahogany in the glow of lamplight.
“You should go back to the apartment,” Catherine finally mumbled, not wishing to seem like a child afraid of the dark.
“I’ll stay a little longer,” came the soft answer.
The next time Catherine awoke, Leo was sitting in the chair. Her drowsy gaze moved over him, taking in the contours of his handsome face, his serious blue eyes. His shirt was partly unbuttoned, revealing a shadow of chest hair. Suddenly desperate to be held against that hard, strong chest, she reached for him wordlessly.
Leo came to her at once. Wrapping his arms around her, he reclined back against the pillows with her. Catherine luxuriated in the feel and scent of him. “Only I,” she whispered, “would feel so safe in the arms of the wickedest man in London.”
He made a sound of amusement. “You like them wicked, Marks. An ordinary man would be tame sport for a woman like you.”
She snuggled closer, her legs tense beneath the bed linens. “I’m so weary,” she said, “but I can’t sleep.”
“You’ll be better tomorrow morning. I promise.” His hand settled on her hip, over the covers. “Close your eyes, love, and let me take care of you.”
She tried to obey. But as the minutes ticked by, she was plagued by increasing restlessness and irritated nerves, a sense of dryness that permeated to her bones. Her skin clamored to be touched, scratched, rubbed, but even the delicate chafing of the sheets was enough to make her raw.
Leo left the bed and returned with a glass of water, and she drank thirstily. Her mouth tingled agreeably from the cool wetness.
Taking away the empty glass, Leo extinguished the lamp and returned to her. She flinched at the feel of his weight depressing the mattress, the disparate information of her senses distilling into one compelling need. In the darkness, Leo’s mouth found hers, tender and gentle, and she couldn’t prevent her own exaggerated response. His hand came to her breast, finding the tip already hard beneath the veil of muslin.
“It sometimes happens with opium smoke,” Leo said quietly. “Later with habit, it decreases. But when you first try it, it can act upon you this way. As the effects leave your body, your nerves start screaming for more of it, and the result is … frustration.”
As he spoke, his hand cupped her breast, his thumb gently circling the tight bud. She felt the sensation everywhere, streamers of fire unraveling to the pit of her belly, and along her legs and arms. She panted and squirmed, too desperate to feel embarrassed by her own muffled cries as his hand slipped beneath the covers.
“Easy, love,” Leo whispered, caressing the taut plane of her stomach. “Let me help you.”
His fingers were gentle on her swollen flesh, stroking and parting and entering, sliding easily into the moisture. She hitched upward, her body craving and willful, every movement enticing him to stroke deeper, harder.
Leo bent his head and kissed her throat. The tip of his thumb rested just above the little spot that burned with white fire, manipulating delicately as his invading fingers stretched her. It sent her into spasms of near-painful release, tearing an unwilling groan from her, and she clutched the back of his shirt in her fists until she felt the fine linen begin to rip. Breathing hard, she let go of the shirt and stammered out an apology. He stripped off the ruined shirt and hushed her with his mouth.
He spread his hand over her intimately, teasing her with exquisite care, while she whimpered and stiffened. Another burst of fire, a series of deep shudders, and she opened her thighs as he slid his fingers in. When the last vibrations had faded, she lay heavily in his arms and let exhaustion overtake her.
In the middle of the night, Catherine pressed against him furtively, needing him again. He rose above her, murmuring that she must relax, he would help her, he would take care of her, and she sobbed openly as she felt him kiss his way down her body. He lifted her legs over his shoulders and cupped her bottom in his hands. His mouth searched gently, his tongue stroking deep into the tender chalice. He did not find a rhythm but instead played with her, pulling softly, licking and nuzzling. The pleasure broke over her in waves, making her gasp in relief.