“You did? And she was willing?”
Before Beatrix could answer, Catherine entered the library, her slim figure dressed in riding clothes, her hair pulled back in a tight braided chignon. A sketchbook was clasped beneath her arm. She stopped short at the sight of Leo, who was wearing a gentleman’s riding coat, close-fitting breeches, and well-worn boots.
Her wary gaze went to Beatrix. “Why haven’t you changed into your riding habit, dear?”
Beatrix replied apologetically, “I’m sorry, Miss Marks, I can’t go after all. Lucky needs me. But it’s just as well—you can show Leo the way even better than I.” Her sunny smile encompassed them both. “It’s a fine day for riding, isn’t it? Have a good outing!” And she left the library in her long, lithe stride.
Catherine’s slender brows rushed downward as she looked at Leo. “Why do you want to visit the ruins?”
“I just want to look at them. Hang it all, do I have to explain myself to you? Just refuse if you’re afraid to go somewhere alone with me.”
“Afraid of you? Not in the least.”
Leo gestured to the doorway in a parody of gentlemanly manners. “After you, then.”
As a result of the strategic importance of the ports of Southampton and Portsmouth, Hampshire was filled with ancient castles and picturesque ruins of forts and Saxon dwellings. Although Leo had known that there were remains of an old manor on the Ramsay estate, he hadn’t yet found the opportunity to visit them. Among the concerns of farming, the accounting of rents, rates, and labor, the timber cutting and the architectural commissions Leo took on occasion, there hadn’t been much time left for idle touring.
Together he and Catherine rode past fields of flowering turnips and wheat, and clover pastures where fat white sheep grazed. They crossed through the timber forest to the northwest of the estate, where heavy streams cut through green hills and limestone crags. The ground was less arable here, more rock than loam, but its location was a solidly defensible position for an ancient fortified manor home.
As they ascended a hill, Leo took covert glances at Catherine. She was slim and graceful on horseback, guiding the horse with a smooth economy of motion. An accomplished woman, he mused. Poised, articulate, competent in nearly everything she did. And yet when another woman would have advertised such qualities, Catherine went to great lengths to keep from drawing attention to herself.
They reached the site of the original manor, where the remains of ancient walls protruded from the ground like the vertebrae of fossilized creatures. Inequalities in the scrub-covered ground marked the locations of the manor’s outbuildings. A shallow circular ring, approximately twenty-five feet wide, revealed the dimensions of the moat that had surrounded a sixty-square-foot elevation of land.
After dismounting and tethering his horse, Leo went to assist Catherine. She disengaged her right leg from the pommel and took her foot from the stirrup, letting Leo control her descent. She alighted on the ground, facing him. Her face lifted, the brim of her riding hat partially shadowing her opalescent eyes.
They stood together with her hands on his shoulders. Her face was flushed with exertion, her lips parted … and all at once Leo knew how it would be to make love to her, her body light and supple beneath his, her breath rushing against his throat as he moved between her thighs. He would bring her to ecstasy, slowly and ruthlessly, and she would claw and moan and sigh his name …
“Here it is,” Catherine said. “Your ancestral home.”
Tearing his gaze from her, Leo regarded the crumbling ruins. “Charming,” he said. “A little dusting and sweeping, and the place will be as good as new.”
“Will you go along with the family’s plan to find a bride for you?”
“Do you think I should?”
“No, I don’t think you have the makings of a decent husband. You haven’t the character for it.”
Leo’s sentiments exactly. Except that it rankled to hear her say it.
“What makes you a fit judge of my character?” he asked.
Her shoulders lifted in an uncomfortable shrug. “One can’t help hearing about your exploits when all the dowagers and matrons are together at the balls.”
“I see. And you believe every rumor you hear?”
She was silent. Leo expected her to argue, or insult him. To his surprise, however, she stared at him with something like remorse. “You have a point. And whether the rumors are true or false, it was wrong of me to listen.”
Leo waited for her to follow that with some stinging insult, but she appeared genuinely chastened. Which was a surprise. It made him realize there was much he didn’t know about her, this solitary and serious young woman who had hovered at the edge of his family for so long.
“What do the gossips say about me?” he asked casually.
She gave him a wry glance. “Your prowess as a lover is much vaunted.”
“Oh, well, those rumors are definitely true.” He clucked his tongue as if shocked. “Do dowagers and chaperones really prattle about such things?”
Her slender brows arched. “What did you imagine they talked about?”
“Knitting. Jelly recipes.”
She shook her head and bit back a smile.
“How tedious these affairs must be for you,” Leo said. “Standing at the side of the room, listening to gossip and watching everyone else dance.”
“I don’t mind it. I don’t like dancing.”