“And if that doesn’t work,” Merripen added, “try a hard knock on the skull with that fireplace poker.”
The pair went out into the hallway.
Left alone with Leo, Catherine approached the bedside. She winced at the sight of the stake embedded in his shoulder, the lacerated flesh oozing blood. Since there was no bedside chair to sit on, she perched carefully on the edge of the mattress. She stared at him steadily, her voice soft with concern. “Why won’t you take the laudanum?”
“Damn it, Marks…” He let out a harsh sigh. “I can’t. Believe me, I know what it’s going to be like without it, but I have no choice. It’s…” He stopped and looked away from her, setting his jaw against a new spate of shivering.
“Why?” Catherine wanted so badly to reach him, to understand, that she found herself touching his hand. When no resistance was offered, she became emboldened and slid her bandaged fingers beneath his cold palm. “Tell me,” she urged. “Please.”
Leo’s hand turned and enclosed hers in a careful grip that sent a response through her entire body. The sensation was one of relief, a feeling of something fitting exactly into place. They both stared at their joined hands, warmth collecting in the sphere of palms and fingers.
“After Laura died,” she heard him say thickly, “I behaved very badly. Worse than I do now, if you can conceive it. But no matter what I did, nothing gave me the oblivion I needed. One night I went to the East End with a few of my more depraved companions, to an opium den.” He paused as he felt Catherine’s hand tighten in reaction. “You could smell the smoke all down the alley. The air was brown with it. They took me to a room filled with men and women all lying pell-mell on pallets and pillows, mumbling and dreaming. The way the opium pipes glowed … it was like dozens of little red eyes winking in the dark.”
“It sounds like a vision of hell,” Catherine whispered.
“Yes. And hell was exactly where I wanted to be. Someone brought me a pipe. With the first draw, I felt so much better, I almost wept.”
“What does it feel like?” she asked, her hand clutched fast in his.
“In an instant, all is right with the world, and nothing, no matter how dark or painful, can change that. Imagine all the guilt and fear and fury you’ve ever felt, lifting away like a feather on a breeze.”
Perhaps once Catherine would have judged him severely for indulging in such wickedness. But now she felt compassion. She understood the pain that had driven him to such depths.
“But the feeling doesn’t last,” she murmured.
He shook his head. “No. And when it goes, you’re worse off than before. You can’t take pleasure in anything. The people you love don’t matter. All you can think of is the opium smoke and when you can have it again.”
Catherine stared at his partially averted profile. It hardly seemed possible that this was the same man she had scorned and disdained for the past year. Nothing had ever seemed to matter to him—he had seemed utterly shallow and self-indulgent. When in truth, things had mattered far too much. “What made you stop?” she asked gently.
“I reached the point at which the thought of going on was too damned exhausting. I had a pistol in my hand. It was Cam who stopped me. He told me the Rom believe that if you grieve too much, you turn the spirit of the deceased into a ghost. I had to let Laura go, he said. For her sake.” Leo looked at her then, his eyes a riveting blue. “And I did. I have. I swore to leave off the opium, and since then I’ve never touched the filthy stuff. Sweet Christ, Cat, you don’t know how hard it was. It took everything I had to turn away. If I went back to it even once … I might find myself in the bottom of a pit I could never climb out of. I can’t take that chance. I won’t.”
“Leo…” She saw him blink in surprise. It was the first time she had ever used his name. “Take the laudanum,” she said. “I won’t let you fall. I won’t let you turn into a degenerate.”
His mouth twisted. “You’re offering to take me on as your responsibility.”
“I’m too much for you to manage.”
“No,” Catherine said decisively, “you’re not.”
He let out a mirthless laugh, followed by a long, curious stare. As if she were someone he ought to know but couldn’t quite place.
Catherine could hardly believe that she was perched on the edge of his bed, holding the hand of a man she had battled so fiercely and for so long. She had never imagined that he would willingly make himself vulnerable to her.
“Trust me,” she urged.
“Give me one good reason.”
“Because you can.”
Leo shook his head slightly, holding her gaze. At first she thought he was refusing her. But it turned out that he was shaking his head in rueful wonder at his own actions. He gestured for the small glass of liquid on the bedside table. “Give it to me,” he muttered, “before I have a chance to think better of it.” She handed the glass to him, and he downed it in a few efficient gulps. A shudder of revulsion swept through him as he gave the empty glass back to her.
They both waited for the medicine to take effect.
“Your hands…” Leo said, reaching for her bandaged fingers. The tip of his thumb brushed gently over the surface of her nails.
“It’s nothing,” she whispered. “Just a few scrapes.”