“Why?” she persisted.
Did she realize she was asking for a piece of him, of his past, that he never gave to anyone? Had he been feeling even a little less wretched, he would have cut her off at once. But his usual defenses were no more effective than the broken stone wall surrounding the manor-house remains.
“It’s because of the girl who died, isn’t it?” Catherine stunned him by asking. “You were betrothed. And she perished from the same scarlet fever that afflicted you and Win. What was her name…?”
“Laura Dillard.” It seemed impossible that he could share this with Catherine Marks, but she seemed to expect that he would. And somehow he was obliging her. “Beautiful girl. She loved to watercolor. Few people are good at that, they’re too afraid of making mistakes. You can’t lift the color or hide it, once it’s put down. And water is unpredictable—an active partner in the painting—you have to let it behave as it will. Sometimes the color diffuses in ways you don’t expect, or one shade backruns into another. That was fine with Laura. She liked the surprises of it. We had known each other all during childhood. I went away for two years to study architecture, and when I came back, we fell in love. So easily. We never argued—there was nothing to argue over. Nothing in our way. My parents had both died the previous year. My father had a heart ailment. He went to sleep one night and never woke up. And my mother followed him just a few months later. She couldn’t stop mourning him. I hadn’t known until then that some people could die of grief.”
He was quiet then, following the memories as if they were leaves and twigs floating on a stream. “When Laura caught the fever, I never thought it would be fatal. I thought I loved her so much that the power of it would be greater than any illness. But I held her for three days and felt her dying a little more each hour. Like water trickling through my fingers. I held her until her heart stopped beating, and her skin finally turned cool. The fever had done its work and left her.”
“I’m sorry,” she said softly, when he fell silent. She covered his good hand with her own. “Truly sorry. I … oh, what an inadequate thing to say.”
“It’s all right,” Leo said. “There are some experiences in life they haven’t invented the right words for.”
“Yes.” Her hand remained over his. “After Laura died,” she said in a moment, “you fell ill with the same fever.”
“It was a relief.”
“Because I wanted to die. Except that Merripen, with his bloody Gypsy potions, wouldn’t let me. It took a long time for me to forgive him for that. I hated him for keeping me alive. Hated the world for spinning without her. Hated myself for not having the bollocks to end it all. Every night I fell asleep begging Laura to haunt me. I think she did for a while.”
“You mean … in your mind? Or literally, as a ghost?”
“Both, I suppose. I put myself and everyone around me through hell until I finally accepted that she was gone.”
“And you still love her.” Catherine’s voice was bleak. “That’s why you’ll never marry.”
“No. I have an extraordinary fondness for her memory. But it was a lifetime ago. And I can’t ever go through that again. I love like a madman.”
“It might not be like that again.”
“No, it would be worse. Because I was only a boy then. And now who I am, what I need … it’s too damned much for anyone to manage.” A sardonic laugh rustled in his throat. “I overwhelm even myself, Marks.”
By the time they reached the timber yard, set a short distance from Ramsay House, Catherine was desperately worried. Leo had become monosyllabic, and he was leaning on her heavily. He was shivering and sweating, his arm a cold weight across her front as he held on to her. A portion of her dress stuck to her shoulder where his blood had soaked it. She saw a blurry group of men preparing to unload a timber wagon. Please, dear God, let Merripen be among them.
“Is Mr. Merripen with you?” she called out.
To her vast relief, Merripen’s dark, lean form emerged. “Yes, Miss Marks?”
“Lord Ramsay has been injured,” she said desperately. “We took a fall—his shoulder was pierced—”
“Take him to the house. I’ll meet you there.”
Before she could reply, he had already begun to run to the house with smooth, ground-eating speed.
By the time Catherine had guided the horse to the front entrance, Merripen was there.
“There was an accident at the ruins,” Catherine said. “A shard of timber has been lodged in his shoulder for at least an hour. He’s very cold, and his speech is disoriented.”
“That’s my usual way of talking,” Leo said behind her. “I’m perfectly lucid.” He tried to descend from the horse in a kind of slow topple. Reaching up for him, Merripen caught him deftly. He wedged his shoulder beneath Leo’s and guided his good arm around his neck. The pain jolted Leo and caused him to grunt. “Oh, you sodding filthy whoreson.”
“You are lucid,” Merripen said dryly, and he looked at Catherine. “Where is Lord Ramsay’s horse?”
“Still at the ruins.”
Merripen gave her an assessing glance. “Are you injured, Miss Marks?”
“Good. Run into the house and find Cam.”