“What happened to Catherine last night?” Amelia asked quietly. “And what of Lord Latimer’s precipitate departure? More than a few tongues were wagging.”
Leo had considered whether or not to discuss Catherine’s secrets with the rest of the family. They would have to be told something. And although he would not go into detail, he felt it would be easier for Catherine if someone else gave the explanation. “As it turns out,” he said carefully, “when Cat was a girl of fifteen, her so-called family made an arrangement with Latimer.”
“What kind of arrangement?” Amelia asked. Her eyes widened as Leo sent her a speaking glance. “Dear Lord.”
“Thankfully Rutledge intervened before she was forced to—” Leo broke off, surprised by the note of fury in his own voice. He struggled to moderate it before continuing. “I needn’t elaborate. However, it’s obviously not a part of Cat’s past that she’s fond of dwelling on. She’s been in hiding for the past eight years. Latimer recognized her last evening, and upset her badly. I’m sure she’ll awaken this morning with some notion of leaving Hampshire.”
Merripen’s features were stern, but his dark eyes were warm with compassion. “There’s no need for her to go anywhere. She’s safe with us.”
Leo nodded, rubbing the edge of the teacup with the pad of his thumb. “I’ll make that clear when I talk with her.”
“Leo,” Amelia said carefully, “are you certain that you’re the best one to manage this? With your history of quarreling…”
He gave her a hard look. “I’m certain.”
“Amelia?” A hesitant voice came from the doorway.
It was Beatrix, wearing a ruffled blue dressing gown, her dark hair trailing in wild locks. Worry had creased her forehead.
“Good morning, dear,” Amelia said warmly. “There’s no need to rise early, if you don’t wish to.”
Beatrix replied in a tumble of words. “I wanted to see how the injured owl I’m keeping in the barn is faring. And I was also looking for Dodger, because I haven’t seen him since yesterday afternoon. So I opened Miss Marks’s door just a sliver, to see if he was in there. You know how he likes to sleep in her slipper box—”
“But he wasn’t there?” Amelia asked.
Beatrix shook her head. “And neither was Miss Marks. Her bed is made, and her carpetbag is gone. And I found this on the dressing table.”
She handed a piece of folded paper to Amelia, who opened it and scanned the written lines.
“What does it say?” Leo asked, already on his feet.
Amelia handed it to him without a word.
Please forgive me for leaving without saying good-bye. There is no other choice. I can never express the gratitude I feel for your generosity and kindness. Hopefully you will not think it presumptuous of me to say that although you are not my family in truth, you are the family of my heart.
I will miss all of you.
“Good God,” Leo growled, tossing the folded paper to the table, “the drama in this household is more than a man can tolerate. I would have assumed that we could have had a reasonable discussion in the comfort of Ramsay House, but instead she flees in the dark of night and leaves a letter filled with sentimental twaddle.”
“It’s not twaddle,” Amelia said defensively.
Win’s eyes filled with compassionate tears as she read the note. “Kev, we must find her.”
Merripen slid a hand over hers.
“She’s gone to London,” Leo muttered. To his knowledge, Harry Rutledge was the only person Cat could turn to. Although Harry and Poppy had been invited to the ball, hotel business had kept them in London.
Anger, urgency, exploded inside Leo from nowhere. He tried not to show it, but the discovery that Cat had left … left him … had filled him with a possessive fury unlike anything he had ever felt before.
“The mail coach usually leaves Stony Cross at five-thirty,” Merripen said. “Which means you have a fair chance of overtaking her before she reaches Guildford. I’ll go with you, if you like.”
“So will I,” Win said.
“We should all go,” Amelia declared.
“No,” Leo said grimly. “I’m going alone. When I catch up with Marks, you won’t want to be there.”
“Leo,” Amelia asked suspiciously, “what are you planning to do to her?”
“Why do you always insist on asking questions when you know you won’t like the answers?”
“Because, being an optimist,” she said tartly, “I always hope I’m wrong.”
The coach schedule was limited, now that the mails were most often loaded onto locomotive trains. Catherine had been fortunate to obtain a seat inside a coach bound for London.
She didn’t feel all that fortunate, however.
She was miserable and chilled, even in the stuffy interior of the coach. The vehicle was filled with passengers outside and in, with parcels and luggage tied precariously up top. The whole thing felt dangerously top-heavy as it rumbled over rough patches of road. Ten miles per hour, one of the gentleman passengers had estimated, admiring the strength and endurance of the team of massive drays.
Morosely Catherine stared out the window as the meadows of Hampshire rolled into the heavy woodland and bustling market towns of Surrey.
There was only one other woman inside the coach, a plump and well-dressed matron who was traveling with her husband. She dozed in the opposite corner from Catherine’s, emitting delicate snores. Whenever the coach jolted, it caused the objects on her hat to rattle and quiver. And quite a hat it was, adorned with clusters of artificial cherries, a plume, and a small stuffed bird.