“The headmistress asked me to.”
“Really? Why? I hope you did something reprehensible and shocking.”
“No, I was very well behaved.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“But Headmistress Marks sent for me to come to her office one afternoon, and—”
“Marks?” Leo glanced at her alertly. “You took her name?”
“Yes, I admired her very much. I wanted to be like her. She was stern but kind, and nothing ever seemed to disrupt her composure. I went to her office, and she poured tea, and we talked for a long time. She said I’d done an excellent job, and I was welcome to return and continue teaching in the future. But first she wanted me to leave Aberdeen and see something of the world. And I told her that leaving Blue Maid’s was the last thing I wanted to do, and she said that was why I needed to do it. She had received word from a friend at a placement agency in London that a family of … ‘uncommon circumstances,’ as she put it, was searching for a woman who could act as both governess and companion to pair of sisters, one of whom had recently been expelled from finishing school.”
“That would be Beatrix.”
Catherine nodded. “The headmistress thought that I might suit the Hathaways. What I never expected was how much they suited me. I went for an interview, and I thought the entire family was a bit mad—but in the loveliest possible way. And I’ve worked for them for almost three years, and I’ve been so happy and now—” She broke off, her face contorting.
“No, no,” Leo said hastily, taking her head in his hands, “don’t start that again.”
Catherine was so shocked to feel his lips brush her cheeks and closed eyes that the tears instantly evaporated. When she finally brought herself to look at him again, she saw that he was wearing a faint smile. He smoothed her hair, and stared into her grief-ravaged face with a depth of concern she had never seen from him before.
It frightened her to realize how much of herself she had just given away. Now he knew everything she had tried to keep secret for so long. Her hands worked against his chest like the wings of a bird that had found itself trapped indoors.
“My lord,” she said with difficulty, “why did you come after me? What do you want from me?”
“I’m surprised you have to ask,” he murmured, still caressing her hair. “I want to offer for you, Cat.”
Of course, she thought, bitterness welling. “To be your mistress.”
His voice matched hers exactly for calmness, in a way that conveyed gentle sarcasm. “No, that would never work. First, your brother would arrange to have me murdered, or, at the very least, maimed. Second, you’re far too prickly tempered to be a mistress. You’re far better suited as a wife.”
“Whose?” she asked with a scowl.
Leo stared directly into her narrowed eyes. “Mine, of course.”
Hurt and outraged, Catherine struggled so violently that he was forced to release her.
“I’ve had enough of you and your tasteless, insensitive humor,” she cried, leaping to her feet. “You cad, you—”
“I’m not joking, damn it!” Leo stood and reached for her, and she hopped backward, and he grabbed, and she flailed. They grappled until Catherine found herself tumbling backward onto the bed.
Leo fell over her in a controlled descent—a pounce, really. She felt him sinking into the mass of skirts, his superior weight urging her legs apart, the muscular mass of his torso pinning her down. She writhed in distress as excitement went skimming and tickling all through her. The more she wriggled, the worse it became. She subsided beneath him, while her hands kept opening and closing on nothing.
Leo stared down at her, eyes dancing with mischief … but there was something else in his expression, a purposefulness, that unsettled her profoundly.
“Consider it, Marks. Marrying me would solve both our problems. You would have the protection of my name. You wouldn’t have to leave the family. And they couldn’t nag me to get married any longer.”
“I am illegitimate,” she said distinctly, as if he were a foreigner trying to learn English. “You are a viscount. You can’t marry a bastard.”
“What about the Duke of Clarence? He had ten bastard children by that actress … what was her name…”
“Yes, that one. Their children were all illegitimate, but some of them married peers.”
“You’re not the Duke of Clarence.”
“That’s right. I’m not a blueblood any more than you are. I inherited the title purely by happenstance.”
“That doesn’t matter. If you married me, it would be scandalous and inappropriate, and doors would be closed to you.”
“Good God, woman, I let two of my sisters marry Gypsies. Those doors have already been closed, bolted, and nailed shut.”
Catherine couldn’t think clearly, could scarcely hear him through the pounding in her ears, the wild clamor of her blood. Will and desire pulled at her with equal force. Turning her face away as his mouth descended, she said desperately, “The only way you could be certain of keeping Ramsay House for your family is to marry Miss Darvin.”
He gave a derisive snort. “It’s also the only way I could be certain of committing sororicide.”
“Of what?” she asked in bewilderment.
“Sororicide. Killing one’s wife.”