“Have you ever danced with a man?”
“No,” she admitted.
“Then how can you be sure you wouldn’t like it?”
“I can have an opinion about something even if I haven’t done it.”
“Of course. It’s so much easier to form opinions without being troubled by experience or facts.”
She frowned but kept silent.
“You’ve given me an idea, Marks,” Leo went on. “I’m going to allow my sisters to plan the ball they mentioned earlier. Only for this reason: I’m going to come to you in the middle of it and ask you to dance with me. In front of everyone.”
She looked appalled. “I would refuse.”
“I’m going to ask nevertheless.”
“To make a mockery of me,” she said. “To make fools of us both.”
“No.” His voice gentled. “Just to dance, Marks.”
Their gazes locked in a long, fascinated stare.
And then to Leo’s surprise, Catherine smiled at him. A sweet, natural, brilliant smile, the first she had ever given him. Leo felt his chest tighten, and he went hot all over, as if some euphoric drug had gone straight to his nervous system.
It felt like … happiness.
He remembered happiness from a long time ago. He didn’t want to feel it. And yet the giddy warmth kept washing over him for no reason whatsoever.
“Thank you,” Catherine said, the smile still hovering on her lips. “That is kind of you, my lord. But I will never dance with you.”
Which, of course, made it the goal of Leo’s life.
Catherine turned to retrieve a sketchbook and roll of pencils from the saddle pouch.
“I didn’t know you sketched,” Leo said.
“I’m not very good at it.”
He gestured to the book in her hands. “May I see that?”
“And give you reason to mock me?”
“I won’t. My solemn promise. Let me see.” Slowly Leo extended his hand, palm up.
Catherine glanced at his open hand, and then his face. Hesitantly she gave the book to him.
Opening the book, he glanced through the sketches. There was a series of the ruins from different angles, perhaps too careful and disciplined in places where a bit of looseness would have given the sketch more vitality. But on the whole it was very well done. “Lovely,” he said. “You have a nice feeling for line and form.”
She colored, seeming uncomfortable with the praise. “I understand from your sisters that you are an accomplished artist.”
“Competent, perhaps. My architectural training included a number of art classes.” Leo gave her a casual grin. “I’m especially good at sketching things that stay still for long periods of time. Buildings. Lampposts.” He leafed through the book. “Do you have any of Beatrix’s drawings?”
“On the last page,” Catherine said. “She began to sketch a protruding section of the wall, over there, but she became preoccupied with a squirrel that kept hopping into the foreground.”
Leo found a perfectly rendered and detailed portrait of a squirrel. He shook his head. “Beatrix and her animals.”
They exchanged a grin.
“Many people talk to their pets,” Catherine said.
“Yes, but very few understand the replies.” Closing the sketchbook, Leo gave it back to her and began to walk the perimeter of the manor enclosure.
Catherine followed, picking her way among the gorse studded with yellow flowers and shiny black pods. “How deep was the original moat, do you estimate?”
“I would guess no more than eight feet where it cuts into the higher ground.” Leo shielded his eyes as he surveyed their surroundings. “They must have diverted one of the streams to fill it. You see those mounds over there? They were probably farm buildings and serf quarters, made of clay and stud.”
“What was the manor home like?”
“The central keep was almost certainly made of stone, with the rest a combination of materials. And it was likely crowded with sheep, goats, dogs, and serfs.”
“Do you know the history of the original overlord?” Catherine sat on a portion of the exposed wall and arranged her skirts.
“You mean the first Viscount Ramsay?” Leo stopped at the edge of the circular depression that had once been the moat. His gaze traveled across the broken landscape. “He started as Thomas of Blackmere, known for his lack of mercy. Apparently he had a talent for pillaging and burning villages. He was regarded as the left arm of Edward the Black Prince. Between them, they virtually destroyed the practice of chivalry.”
Glancing over his shoulder, he smiled at the sight of Catherine’s wrinkled nose. She sat with schoolgirl straightness, the sketchbook in her lap. He would have liked to snatch her off the wall and do some pillaging of his own. Reflecting that it was a good thing she couldn’t read his thoughts, he continued the story.
“After fighting in France and being held prisoner for four years, Thomas was released and returned to England. I suppose he thought it was time to settle down, because he subsequently rode on this keep, killed the baron who had built it, seized his lands and ravished his widow.”
Her eyes were wide. “Poor lady.”
Leo shrugged. “She must have had some influence on him. He married her afterward and sired six children by her.”
“Did they live to a peaceful old age?”
Leo shook his head, approaching her leisurely. “Thomas went back to France, where they put an end to him at Castillon. But the French were quite civilized about it and raised a monument to him on the field.”