“She’s right, Catherine,” Poppy said, beaming. “Wait until my brother sees you! He’ll rue every awful word he’s ever said to you.”
“I’ve said awful things to him too,” Catherine replied soberly.
“We all knew there was a reason behind the animosity between you,” Poppy said. “But we could never agree on what it was. Beatrix was right, of course.”
“That you and Leo were like a pair of ferrets, a bit rough-and-tumble in courtship.”
Catherine smiled sheepishly. “Beatrix is very intuitive.”
Poppy directed a wry glance at Dodger, who was carefully licking the last residue of egg off the saucer. “I used to think Beatrix would outgrow her obsession with animals. Now I realize it’s the way her brain works. She sees hardly any difference between the animal world and the human one. I only hope she can find a man who will tolerate her individuality.”
“What a tactful way to put it,” Catherine said, laughing. “You mean a man who won’t complain about finding rabbits in his shoes or a lizard in his cigar box?”
“She will,” Catherine assured her. “Beatrix is far too loving, and worthy of being loved, to go unmarried.”
“As are you,” Poppy said meaningfully. She went to scoop up the ferret as he proceeded to investigate the contents of the basket. “I’ll take Dodger for the day. I’m doing correspondence all morning, and he can sleep on my desk while I work.”
The ferret hung limp in Poppy’s hold, grinning at Catherine as he was carried away.
Leo hadn’t wanted to leave Catherine alone last night. He had wanted to stay beside her, watch over her, like a griffin guarding an exotic treasure. Although Leo had never possessed a jealous nature before, it seemed he was quickly making up for lost time. It was particularly annoying that Catherine was so reliant upon Harry. But it was natural that she should want to depend on her brother, especially when Harry had once rescued her from a dire situation and had been her only constant in the years afterward. Even though Harry had shown little love or interest in her until recently, he was all she’d ever had.
The problem was that Leo had a consuming desire to be everything to Catherine. He wanted to be her exclusive confidant, her lover and closest friend, to tend to her most intimate needs. To warm her with his body when she was cold, hold a cup to her lips when she was thirsty, rub her feet when she was tired. To join his life with hers in every significant and mundane way.
However, he would not win her with one gesture, one conversation, one passion-filled night. He would have to chip away at her, removing strategic slivers here and there until her objections finally collapsed. That would require patience, attention, time. So be it. She was worth all of that and more.
Arriving at the door of Catherine’s suite, Leo knocked discreetly and waited. She appeared promptly, opening the door and smiling at him. “Good morning,” she said with an expectant glance.
Any words of greeting Leo had intended to say vanished instantly. His gaze traveled slowly over her. She was like one of the exquisite feminine images painted on bandboxes or displayed in print shops. The pristine perfection of her made him long to unwrap her, like a bonbon done up in a neat paper twist.
Leo’s silence went on so long that Catherine was forced to speak again. “I’m ready for the outing. Where are we going?”
“I can’t remember,” Leo said, still staring. He moved forward as if to crowd her back into the room.
Holding her ground, Catherine placed a gloved hand on his chest. “I’m afraid I can’t allow you inside, my lord. It wouldn’t be proper. And I do hope that for this outing you have hired an open carriage instead of a closed one?”
“We can take a carriage if you prefer. But our destination is a short distance, and the walk is pleasant, through St. James’s Park. Would you like to go on foot?”
She nodded immediately.
As they left the hotel, Leo took the side nearest the curb. Walking with her hand tucked into the crook of Leo’s arm, Catherine told him what she and Beatrix had read concerning the park, that King James had kept a collection of animals there, including camels, crocodiles, and an elephant, as well as a row of aviaries along what became Birdcage Walk. That led to Leo telling her about the architect John Nash, who had designed the central mall through the park. The avenue had become the royal ceremonial route from Buckingham Palace.
“Nash was what they called a coxcomb back then,” Leo said. “Arrogant and self-important, which are requirements for an architect of that caliber.”
“Are they?” Catherine seemed amused. “Why, my lord?”
“The staggering amount of money expended on an important work, and the public nature of it … it’s effrontery, really, to believe that a design in one’s head has enough merit to be built on a large scale. A painting hangs in a museum where people have to seek it out, or avoid it if they prefer. But there’s not much one can do to avoid a building, and God help us all if it’s an eyesore.”
She glanced at him astutely, paying close attention. “Do you ever dream of designing a grand public palace or monument, as Mr. Nash did?”
“No, I have no ambitions to be a great architect. Only a useful one. I like designing smaller projects, such as the tenant houses on the estate. They’re no less important than a palace, in my opinion.” He shortened his stride to match hers, and steered her carefully over a rough patch in the pavement. “When I went back to France the second time, I happened to encounter one of my professors from the Académie des Beaux-Arts, while I was on a walk in Provence. Lovely old man.”