“There is no need to make derogatory remarks about my stature,” she said, lurching upward and squinting at her surroundings. Identifying the highest pile of debris, she made her way to it and hunted for nearby rocks.
“I’m not being derogatory.” He sounded exasperated. “Your stature is absolutely perfect for my favorite activity. But you’re not built for hauling rocks. Blast it, Marks, you’re going to hurt yourself—”
“Stay there,” Catherine said sharply, hearing him push some heavy object aside. “You’ll worsen your injury, and then it will be even more difficult to get you out. Let me do the work.” Finding a heap of ashlar blocks, she picked one up and lugged it up the pile, trying not to trip over her own skirts.
“You’re not strong enough,” Leo said, sounding aggravated and out of breath.
“What I lack in physical strength,” she replied, going for another block, “I make up for in determination.”
“How inspiring. Could we set aside the heroic fortitude for one bloody moment and dredge up some common sense?”
“I’m not going to argue with you, my lord. I need to save my breath for”—she paused to heft another block—“stacking rocks.”
Somewhere amid the ordeal, Leo decided hazily that he would never underestimate Catherine Marks again. Ounce for ounce, she was the most insanely obstinate person he had ever known, dragging rocks and debris while half blind and hampered by long skirts, diligently crossing back and forth across his vision like an industrious mole. She had decided to build a mound upon which they could climb out, and nothing would stop her.
Occasionally she stopped and put her hand on his forehead or throat, checking his temperature and pulse. And then she would be off again.
It was maddening not to be able to help her—humiliating to let a woman do such work without him—but every time he tried to stand, he became dizzy and disoriented. His shoulder was on fire, and he couldn’t use his left arm properly. Cold sweat dripped from his face and stung his eyes.
He must have drifted off for a few minutes, because the next thing he was aware of was Catherine’s urgent hands shaking him awake.
“Marks,” he said groggily. “What are you doing here?” He had the confused impression that it was morning, and she wanted him to awaken before his usual hour.
“Don’t sleep,” she said with an anxious frown. “I’ve built the pile high enough that we can climb out now. Come with me.”
His body felt as if it had been encased in lead. He was overwhelmed with weariness. “In few minutes. Let me doze a bit longer.”
“Now, my lord.” Clearly she would bully and badger him until he obeyed. “Come with me. Up with you. Move.”
Leo complied with a groan, lurching until he had staggered to his feet. A cold burst of pain radiated from his shoulder and arm, and a few helpless curses slipped out before he could stop himself. Oddly, Catherine didn’t rebuke him.
“Over there,” she said. “And don’t trip—you’re too heavy for me to catch.”
Profoundly irritated but aware that she was trying to help him, he concentrated on placing his feet and maintaining his balance.
“Is Leo short for Leonard?” she asked, confusing him.
“Confound it, Marks, I don’t want to talk now.”
“Answer me,” she persisted.
He realized she was trying to keep him alert. “No,” he said, breathing heavily. “It’s just Leo. My father loved the constellations. Leo is the … constellation of high summer. The brightest star marks his heart. Regulus.” He paused to stare blearily at the pile she had made. “Well. How efficient you are. The next time I take an architectural commission—” He paused to catch his breath. “I’ll recommend you as the contractor.”
“Just think if I’d had my spectacles,” she said. “I could have made proper stairs.”
He let out a huff of laughter. “You go first, and I’ll follow.”
“Hold on to my skirts,” she said.
“Why, Marks, that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”
They climbed out together laboriously, while Leo’s blood turned to ice and his wound ached and his brains went to mush. By the time he’d flopped to the ground in an awkward sideways sprawl, he was infuriated with Catherine for making him go to such effort when he’d wanted to stay in the pit and rest. The sun was blinding, and he felt hot and strange. A ferocious ache had settled behind his eyes.
“I’ll fetch my horse,” Catherine said. “We’ll ride back together.”
The prospect of mounting a horse and riding to Ramsay House was exhausting. But faced with her ruthless insistence, he had no choice but to comply. Very well. He would ride. He would bloody well ride until he expired, and Catherine would appear at the house with his corpse seated behind her.
Leo sat there fuming and boiling until Catherine brought the horse. The anger gave him the strength for one last massive effort. He swung up behind her, sat the horse, and put his good arm around her slim body. He held on to her, shivering with discomfort. She was small but strong, her spine a steady axis that centered them both. Now all he had to do was endure. His resentment evaporated, dispersed by thrills of pain.
He heard Catherine’s voice. “Why have you decided never to marry?”
His head bobbed closer to her ear. “It isn’t fair to ask personal questions when I’m nearly delirious. I might tell you the truth.”