Leo bowed and offered her his arm.
“Thank you, my lord. It was lovely.”
“Would you like to dance again?”
“I’m afraid not. It would be scandalous. I’m not a guest, after all.”
“You’re part of the family,” Leo said.
“You are very kind, my lord, but you know that’s not true. I am a paid companion, which means—”
She broke off as she became aware that someone, a man, was staring at her. Glancing in his direction, she saw a face that had haunted her in nightmares.
The sight of him, a figure from the past she had managed to evade for so long, extorted every bit of calm she possessed and sent her into full-scale panic. Only her grip on Leo’s arm kept her from doubling over as if she’d been kicked in the stomach. She tried to take a breath, and could only wheeze.
“Marks?” Leo stopped and turned her to face him, looking down at her bleached face in concern. “What is it?”
“A touch of the vapors,” she managed to say. “It must have been the exertion of the dance.”
“Let me help you to a chair—”
The man was still staring at her, recognition dawning on his features. She had to get away before he approached her. She swallowed hard against the biting pressure of tears welling in her eyes and throat.
What might have been the happiest night of Catherine’s life had abruptly become the worst.
It’s over, she thought with bitter grief. Her life with the Hathaways had come to an end. She wanted to die.
“What can I do?” Leo asked quietly.
“Please, will you see to Beatrix … tell her…”
She couldn’t finish. Shaking her head blindly, she walked out of the drawing room as quickly as possible.
The exertions of the dance, my arse, Leo thought darkly. This was a woman who had moved a pile of rocks so that he could climb out of a pit. Whatever was bothering Catherine, it had nothing to do with the vapors. Glancing around the room with narrowed eyes, Leo saw a stillness amid the chattering crowd.
Guy, Lord Latimer, was watching Catherine Marks as intently as Leo was. And as she left the drawing room, Latimer began to make his way to the open doorway as well.
Leo scowled with the irritable awareness that the next time his family planned a ball or soirée, he was going to personally inspect the guest list. Had he known that Latimer would be invited, he would have drawn through the name with the darkest of ink.
Latimer, at the age of approximately forty, had reached the stage of life at which a man could no longer be called a rake, which implied a certain youthful immaturity, but instead a roué, which had the flavor of middle-aged unseemliness.
As next in line to an earldom, Latimer had little to occupy him, other than to wait for his father to die. In the meantime he had dedicated himself to the pursuit of vice and perversion. He expected others to clean up his messes, and he cared for no one’s comfort but his own. The place in his chest where a heart should have been was as empty as a calabash gourd. He was wily, clever, and calculating, all in service of satisfying his own boundless needs.
And Leo, in the depths of his despair over Laura Dillard, had tried his best to emulate him.
Recalling the escapades he had been involved in with Latimer and his cadre of dissipated aristocrats, Leo felt distinctly unclean. Since his return from France, he had scrupulously avoided Latimer. However, Latimer’s family was from the neighboring county of Wiltshire, and it would have been impossible to steer clear of him forever.
Seeing Beatrix approaching the side of the drawing room, Leo reached her in a few impatient strides and took her arm.
“No more dancing for now, Bea,” he murmured close to her ear. “Marks isn’t available to watch over you.”
“I intend to find out. In the meantime, don’t get into trouble.”
“What should I do?”
“I don’t know. Go to the refreshment table and eat something.”
“I’m not hungry.” Beatrix heaved a sigh. “But I suppose one doesn’t need to be hungry to eat.”
“Good girl,” he muttered, and left the room swiftly.
“Stop! Stop right there, I say!”
Catherine ignored the summons, keeping her head down as she hurried along a hallway toward the servants’ stairwell. She was drowning in shame and fear. But she was also infuriated, thinking how monstrously unfair it was that this one man should keep ruining her life, over and over. She had known this would happen someday, that even though Latimer and the Hathaways moved in different circles, they would inevitably meet. But it had been worth the risk to be with the Hathaways, to feel that just for a little while, she had been part of a family.
Latimer grabbed her arm with bruising force. Catherine whirled to face him, her entire body shaking.
It surprised her to see the extent to which he had aged, his features blighted by coarse living. He was heavier, thick around the middle, and his ginger-colored hair was thinning. Most telling, his face had acquired the wizened look of habitual self-indulgence.
“I don’t know you, sir,” she said coolly. “You are importunate.”
Latimer didn’t let go of her arm. His devouring gaze made her feel polluted and ill. “I’ve never forgotten you. I looked for years. You went to another protector, didn’t you?” His tongue emerged to swipe moistly over his lips, and his jaw worked as if he were preparing to unhook it and swallow her whole. “I wanted to be your first. I paid a bloody fortune for it.”