Catherine took a shivering breath. “Release me at once, or I’ll—”
“What are you doing here, dressed in a spinster’s garb?”
She looked away from him, battling tears. “I am employed by the Hathaway family. By Lord Ramsay.”
“That I can believe. Tell me what services you provide for Ramsay.”
“Let go of me.” Her voice was low and strained.
“Not on your life.” Latimer drew her stiff body closer, his wine-soured breath wafting in her face. “Revenge,” he said softly, “is the act of a despicable and petty character. Which is no doubt why I’ve always enjoyed it so much.”
“What do you want revenge for?” Catherine asked, despising him to the bottom of her soul. “You lost nothing because of me. Except perhaps the merest fragment of pride, which you could easily afford.”
Latimer smiled. “There’s where you’re mistaken. Pride is all I have. I’m quite sensitive about it, really. And I won’t be satisfied until it’s returned with interest. Eight years of compounded pride is a tidy sum, wouldn’t you say?”
Catherine stared at him coldly. The last time she had seen him, she had been a fifteen-year-old girl with no resources, and no one to protect her. But Latimer had no idea that Harry Rutledge was her brother. Nor did it seem to have occurred to him that there might be other men who would dare to stand between him and what he wanted. “You disgusting lecher,” she said. “I suppose the only way you can have a woman is to purchase one. Except that I’m not for sale.”
“You were once, weren’t you?” Latimer asked idly. “You were a costly piece, and I was assured that you were worth it. Obviously you’re no virgin, being in service to Ramsay, but I’d still like a sample of what I paid for.”
“I owe you nothing! Leave me alone.”
Latimer stunned her by smiling, his face softening. “Come now, you do me a disservice. I’m not such a bad fellow. I can be generous. What does Ramsay pay you? I’ll triple it. It would be no hardship, sharing my bed. I know a thing or two about pleasing a woman.”
“I’m sure you know a great deal about pleasing yourself,” she said, twisting in his grasp. “Let go.”
“Don’t struggle, you’ll make me hurt you.”
They were both so involved in their conflict that neither of them noticed the approach of a third party.
“Latimer.” It was Leo’s voice, severing the air like the quiet arc of a steel blade. “If anyone were going to molest my servants, Latimer, it would be me. And I certainly wouldn’t require your assistance.”
To Catherine’s measureless relief, the brutal grip loosened and fell away. She backed up so hastily that she nearly stumbled. But Leo came to her swiftly, using a hand on her shoulder to arrest her momentum. The lightness of his grip, of a man mindful of fragility, was in stark contrast to Latimer’s.
She had never seen Leo wear such an expression, a murderous glitter in his eyes. He wasn’t at all the same man who had danced with her just minutes before.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
Catherine nodded, staring up at him in dazed misery. How closely acquainted was he with Lord Latimer? Dear God, was it possible they were friends? And if so … given the chance, might Leo have done the same thing to her that Latimer once had, all those years ago?
“Leave us,” Leo murmured, removing his hand from her shoulder.
Glancing at Latimer, Catherine shivered in revulsion and fled from the pair, as her life came crashing down around her.
Leo stared after Catherine, resisting the urge to follow her. He would go to her later, and try to soothe or repair what damage had been done. And it was considerable damage—he had seen it in her eyes.
Turning to Latimer, Leo was powerfully tempted to slaughter the bastard where he stood. Instead he made his face implacable. “I had no idea you’d been invited,” he said, “or I would have advised the housemaids to go into hiding. Really, Latimer, must you force yourself on unwilling females with all the available ones to be had?”
“How long have you had her?”
“If you’re referring to Miss Marks’s period of employ, she’s been with the family not quite three years.”
“There’s no need to maintain the pretense that she’s a servant,” Latimer said. “Clever lad, installing your mistress in the family household for your own convenience. I want a go at her. Just for one night.”
Leo found it increasingly difficult to restrain his temper. “What in God’s name gave you the idea that she’s my mistress?”
“She’s the girl, Ramsay. The one I told you about! Don’t you remember?”
“No,” Leo said curtly.
“We were in our cups at the time,” Latimer conceded. “But I thought you were paying attention.”
“At your sober best, Latimer, you’re irrelevant and annoying. Why would I have paid attention to anything you said when you were drunk? And what the devil do you mean, ‘she’s the girl’?”
“I purchased her from my old madam. I won her in a private auction of sorts. She was the most charming thing I’d ever seen, no more than fifteen, with those golden curls, and such remarkable eyes. The madam assured me the girl was absolutely untouched, and yet she had been told all the ways to pleasure a man. I paid a fortune to have the girl at my service for the period of a year, with an option to continue the arrangement if I desired.”