Leo smiled. “Eager to make up after our quarrel, darling?”
She gave him a look that should have slayed him on the spot.
To Catherine’s fidgety impatience, it took another ten minutes for the arrangements to be made, including securing lodging for Leo’s driver and footman. Moreover, Leo’s luggage—two sizable traveling bags—had to be brought in. “I thought I might not reach you until London,” Leo said, having the grace to look slightly sheepish.
“Why did you arrange for only one room?” she whispered sharply.
“Because you’re not safe by yourself. You need me for protection.”
She glared at him. “You’re the one I need protection from!”
They were shown to a tidy but sparsely furnished room, with a brass bed in need of polishing, and a faded, much-laundered quilt. Two chairs were poised by the tiny hearth, one upholstered, the other small and bare. A battered washstand occupied one corner, a small table in another. The floor was swept and the white-painted walls were vacant except for a framed work consisting of a motto embroidered on heavy perforated paper: “Time and tide wait for no man.”
Mercifully there was a lack of strong odor in the room, only a slight whiff of roasted meat from the tavern below, and an ashy tang from the cold hearth.
After Leo had closed the door, Catherine set her carpetbag on the floor and opened it.
Dodger’s head emerged and did a complete swivel as he surveyed the room. He leaped out and scurried beneath the bed.
“You brought Dodger with you?” Leo asked blankly.
“I see. Is that why you were forced off the coach?”
Glancing at him, Catherine felt her insides rearrange themselves, a warm lifting and resettling as she saw him remove his coat and cravat. Everything about the situation was improper, and yet propriety no longer seemed to matter.
She told him the story then, about the rustling in the bag, and how the ferret had stolen the cherries off the matron’s hat, and by the time she got to the part about Dodger pretending to be a scarf around her neck, Leo was gasping with laughter. He looked so thoroughly tickled, so boyish in his amusement, that Catherine didn’t care if it was at her expense or not. She even laughed with him, breaking into helpless giggles.
But somehow her giggling dissolved into sobs, and she felt her eyes welling even as she laughed, and she put her hands over her face to hold the giddy emotions back. Impossible. She knew she looked like a madwoman, laughing and crying all at once. This kind of emotional unhinging was her worst nightmare.
“I’m sorry,” she choked, shaking her head, covering her eyes with a sleeved forearm. “Please leave. Please.”
But Leo’s arms went around her. He collected the quivering bundle of her against his hard chest, and he held her firmly. She felt him kiss the hot, exposed curve of her ear. The scent of his shaving soap drifted to her nostrils, the masculine fragrance comforting and familiar. She didn’t realize that she had continued to gasp out the word “sorry” until he answered, his voice low and infinitely tender. “Yes, you should be sorry … but not for crying. Only for leaving me without a word.”
“I l-left a letter,” she protested.
“That maudlin note? Surely you didn’t think that would be enough to keep me from coming after you. Hush, now. I’m here, and you’re safe, and I’m not letting go. I’m here.” She realized that she was struggling to press closer to him, trying to fight her way deeper into his embrace.
When her crying broke into watery hiccups, she felt Leo tug the jacket of her traveling habit from her shoulders. In her exhaustion she found herself complying like an obedient child, pulling her arms from the sleeves. She didn’t even protest as he took the combs and pins from her hair. Her scalp throbbed sharply as the tight coiffure was undone. Leo removed her spectacles and set them aside, and went to fetch a handkerchief from his discarded coat.
“Thank you,” Catherine mumbled, mopping her sore eyes with the square of pressed cotton, wiping her nose. She stood with childlike indecision, the handkerchief balled in her fingers.
“Come here.” Leo sat in the large hearthside chair and drew her down with him.
“Oh, I can’t—” she began, but he hushed her and gathered her on his lap. The mounds of her skirts spilled heavily over them both. She rested her head on his shoulder, the agitated workings of her lungs gradually matching the measured rhythm of his. His hand played slowly in her hair. Once she would have shrunk away from a man’s touch, no matter how innocuous. But in this room, removed from the rest of the world, it seemed neither of them were quite themselves.
“You shouldn’t have followed me,” she finally brought herself to say.
“The entire family wanted to come,” Leo said. “It seems the Hathaways can’t do without your civilizing influence. So I’ve been charged with bringing you back.”
That nearly started her crying again. “I can’t go back.”
“You already know. Lord Latimer must have told you about me.”
“He told me a little.” The backs of his fingers stroked the side of her neck. “Your grandmother was the madam, wasn’t she?” His tone was quiet and matter-of-fact, as if having a grandmother who owned a house of prostitution was a perfectly ordinary circumstance.
Catherine nodded, swallowing miserably. “I went to live with my grandmother and Aunt Althea when Mother took ill. At first I didn’t understand what the family business was, but after a while I realized what working for my grandmother meant. Althea had finally reached the age when she was no longer as popular among the customers. And then I turned fifteen, and it was supposed to be my turn. Althea said that I was lucky, because she’d had to start when she was twelve. I asked if I could be a teacher or a seamstress, something like that. But she and my grandmother said I’d never make enough money to repay what had been spent on me. Working for them was the only profitable thing I could do. I tried to think of somewhere to go, some way to survive by myself. But there was no position I could get without recommendations. Except for a factory job, which would have been dangerous and the wages would have been too low to pay for a room anywhere. I begged my grandmother to let me go to my father, because I knew he would never have left me there, had he known of their plans. But she said—” Catherine stopped, her hands fisting in his shirt.