“I don’t think he deserved any kind of tribute.”
“Don’t be too hard on the fellow—he was only doing what the times demanded.”
“He was a barbarian,” she said indignantly. “Regardless of the times.” The wind had teased a lock of light golden hair loose from her tight chignon, and sent it straying over her cheek.
Unable to resist, Leo reached out and stroked the tendril back behind her ear. Her skin was baby-fine and smooth. “Most men are,” he said. “It’s only that they have more rules now.” He removed his hat, set it on the wall, and stared into her upturned face. “You may put a man in a cravat, teach him manners, and make him attend a soiree, but hardly any of us are truly civilized.”
“From what I know of men,” she said, “I agree.”
He gave her a mocking glance. “What do you know of men?”
She looked solemn, the clear gray irises now tinged with ocean green. “I know not to trust them.”
“I would say the same of women.” He shed his coat, tossed it over the wall, and went to the hill at the center of the ruins. Surveying the surrounding land, Leo couldn’t help wondering if Thomas of Blackmere had stood on this exact spot, looking over his property. And now, centuries later, the estate was Leo’s to make of what he would, his to shape and order. Everyone and everything on it was his responsibility.
“How is the view from up there?” he heard Catherine’s voice from below.
“Exceptional. Come see it, if you like.”
She left the sketchbook on the fence and began up the slope of the mound, lifting her skirts as she climbed.
Turning to watch Catherine, Leo let his gaze linger on her slender, pretty figure. She was fortunate that medieval times were long past, he thought with a private smile, or she would have found herself snapped up and devoured by some marauding lord. But the touch of amusement faded quickly as he imagined the primitive satisfaction of claiming her, picking her up and carrying her to a soft patch of ground.
For just a moment he let himself dwell on the idea … lowering himself to her writhing body, tearing her dress, kissing her br**sts’
Leo shook his head to clear it, troubled by the direction of his thoughts. Whatever else he was, he was not a man to force himself on a woman. And yet the fantasy was too potent to ignore. With an effort, he bludgeoned the barbaric impulses back into submission.
Catherine was halfway up the slope when she gave a low cry and seemed to stumble.
Concerned, Leo started for her immediately. “Did you trip? Are you’bloody hell.” He stopped in place as he saw that the ground had partially given way beneath her. “Stop, Cat. Don’t move. Wait.”
“What’s happening?” she asked, her face bleached of color. “Is it a sinkhole?”
“More like a bloody architectural miracle. We seem to be standing on a portion of a roof that should have caved in at least two centuries ago.”
They were approximately five yards apart, with Leo on higher ground.
“Cat,” he said with great care, “slowly lower yourself to the ground to redistribute your weight over a greater surface. Easy. Yes, like that. Now you’re going to crawl back down the slope.”
“Can you help me?” she asked, and the tremor in her voice wrenched his heart.
He answered in a thick voice that didn’t sound like his own. “Sweetheart, I would love nothing more. But joining my weight to yours could collapse the roof entirely. Start moving. If it makes you feel better, with all the debris in there, it can’t be too far to fall.”
“Actually, that doesn’t make me feel better at all.” White-faced, she moved slowly on her hands and knees.
Leo stayed in place, not taking his gaze from Catherine. The ground that seemed so solid beneath his feet was possibly nothing more than a layer of earth and ancient rotted timber. “You’ll be fine,” he said in a soothing tone, while his heart pounded with anxiety for her. “You weigh no more than a butterfly. It’s my weight that’s put a strain on what’s left of the beams and bridging joints.”
“Is that why you’re not moving?”
“Yes. If I cause a collapse when I try to get off, I’d like you to be out of harm’s way first.”
They both felt the ground shift beneath them.
“My lord,” Catherine asked, her eyes wide, “do you think this has anything to do with the Ramsay curse?”
“Actually, that hadn’t occurred to me yet,” Leo said. “Thank you so much for bringing it to my attention.”
The roof collapsed, and they simultaneously plunged amid a torrent of earth, rock, and timber into the dark space below.
Catherine stirred and coughed. There was grit in her mouth and eyes, and she was sprawled on a wretchedly uncomfortable surface.
“Marks.” She heard Leo shove debris aside as he made his way to her. His voice was unsteady and urgent. “Are you hurt? Can you move?”
“Yes … I’m all in one piece…” She sat up and rubbed her face. Evaluating the collection of aches and pains in her body, she decided they were all insignificant. “Just a bit bruised. Oh, dear. My spectacles are gone.”
She heard him swear. “I’ll try to find them.”
Disoriented, she tried to make out what she could of their surroundings. Leo’s lean form was a dark blur nearby as he searched the rubble. Dust clouded the air, settling slowly. From what little she could see, they were in a pit, perhaps six feet deep, with sunlight drizzling in through the broken roof. “You were right, my lord. It wasn’t far to fall. Is this the keep?”