“Later,” she whispered back, easing her hand from his. “Please.” She didn’t want the evening to be ruined for everyone, nor did she want to take the chance that Leo might seek out Latimer in the theater and confront him. There was nothing to be gained by saying anything at the moment.
The theater darkened and the play resumed, although the story’s melodramatic charms couldn’t pull Catherine out of her frozen misery. She watched the stage with a fixed gaze, hearing the actors’ dialogue as if it were a foreign language. And all the while her mind kept trying to find a solution to her internal dilemma.
It didn’t seem to matter that she already knew the answers. It had never been her fault, the situation she had once been put in. The blame was Latimer’s, and Althea’s, and her grandmother’s. Catherine could reassure herself of that for the rest of her life, and yet the feelings of guilt, pain, confusion, were still there. How could she rid herself of them? What could possibly free her?
For the next ten minutes, Leo glanced at Catherine repeatedly, perceiving that something was deeply wrong. She was trying very hard to concentrate on the play, but it was clear that her mind was consumed with some overpowering problem. She was distant, unreachable, as if she had been encased in ice. Trying to comfort her, he took her hand once more, and ran his thumb above the edge of her wrist-length glove. The iciness of her skin was startling.
Frowning deeply, Leo leaned toward Poppy. “What the devil happened to Marks?” he whispered.
“I don’t know,” she returned helplessly. “Harry and I were talking to Lord and Lady Despencer, and Catherine was off to the side. Then we both sat, and I noticed that she looked ill.”
“I’m taking her back to the hotel,” Leo said.
Harry, who had caught the last of the exchange, frowned and murmured, “We’ll all go.”
“There’s no need for any of us to leave,” Catherine protested.
Ignoring her, Leo stared at Harry. “It would be better if you stayed and watched the rest of the play. And if anyone asks about Marks, say something about the vapours.”
“Don’t tell anyone I had vapours,” Catherine whispered sharply.
“Then say I had them,” Leo told Harry.
That seemed to rouse Catherine from her numbness. Leo was relieved to see a flicker of her usual spirit as she said, “Men can’t have vapours. It’s a female condition.”
“Nevertheless, I do,” Leo said. “I may even swoon.” He helped her from her seat.
Harry rose as well, looking down at his sister with concern. “Is this what you want, Cat?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, looking annoyed. “If I don’t, he’ll be asking for smelling salts.”
Leo escorted Catherine outside and summoned a hackney carriage. It was a two-wheeled, partially open vehicle, with an elevated driver’s seat at the rear. One could speak to the driver through a trapdoor at the top.
As Catherine approached the vehicle with Leo, she had a crawling sensation of being watched. Afraid that Latimer had followed her, she glanced to her left, where a man stood beside one of the theater’s massive portico columns. To her relief, it was not Latimer, but a much younger man. He was tall, rawboned, and dressed in shabby dark clothing and a tattered hat, with the overall effect of a scarecrow. He had the distinctive London pallor common to those who spent most of their time indoors, whose skin was never touched by sun without the filter of polluted city air. His brows were strong black stripes across his gaunt face, his skin creased with lines that he was too young to have.
He was staring at her fixedly.
Catherine paused uncertainly, aware of a vague sense of recognition. Had she seen him somewhere before? She couldn’t fathom where they might have met.
“Come,” Leo said, intending to hand her into the carriage.
But Catherine resisted, caught by the riveted stare of the stranger’s raven-dark eyes.
Leo followed the direction of her gaze. “Who is that?”
The young man came forward, removing his hat to reveal a mop of shaggy black hair. “Miss Catherine?” he said awkwardly.
“William,” she breathed in wonder.
“Yes, miss.” His mouth curled upward in the beginnings of a smile. He took another hesitant step, and bobbed in a sort of clumsy bow.
Leo intruded between them protectively and looked down at Catherine. “Who is he?”
“I think he’s the boy I once told you about … who worked at my grandmother’s house.”
“The errand boy?”
Catherine nodded. “He was the reason I was able to send for Harry … he took my letter to him. My lord, do let me speak to him.”
Leo’s face was implacable. “You would be the first one to tell me that a lady never stands and converses with a man on the street.”
“Now you want to pay heed to etiquette?” she asked in annoyance. “I’m going to speak to him.” Seeing the refusal in his face, she softened her voice, and surreptitiously touched his hand. “Please.”
Leo relented. “Two minutes,” he muttered, looking none too happy. He remained right beside her, his eyes ice-blue as he stared at William.
Looking cowed, William obeyed Catherine’s motion to come to them. “You turned into a lady, Miss Catherine,” he said in his thick South London accent. “But I knew it was you—that face, and those same little spectacles. I always hoped you was all right.”