“No.” Harry stared at him directly. “There’s no plot.”
“Then why all these secrets?”
“I can’t explain without telling you something of my own past—” Pausing, Harry added darkly, “Which I hate doing.”
“So sorry,” Leo said without a trace of sincerity. “Go on.”
Harry hesitated again, as if weighing the decision to tell him anything. “Cat and I had the same mother. Her name was Nicolette Wigens. She was British by birth. Her family moved from England to Buffalo, New York, when she was still an infant. Because Nicolette was an only child—the Wigens had her fairly late in life—it was their desire to see her married to a man who would take care of her. My father Arthur was more than twice her age, and fairly prosperous. I suspect the Wigens forced the match—there was certainly no love in it. But Nicolette married Arthur, and I was born soon after. A bit too soon, actually. There was speculation that Arthur wasn’t the father.”
“Was he?” Leo couldn’t help asking.
Harry smiled cynically. “Does one ever know for certain?” He shrugged. “In any case, my mother eventually ran off to England with one of her lovers.” Harry’s gaze was distant. “There were other men after that, I believe. My mother wasn’t one for limiting herself. She was a spoiled, self-indulgent bitch, but very beautiful. Cat looks very much like her.” He paused reflectively. “Only softer. More refined. And unlike our mother, Cat has a kind and caring nature.”
“Really,” Leo said sourly. “She’s never been kind to me.”
“That’s because you frighten her.”
Leo gave him a disbelieving glance. “In what possible way could I frighten that little virago? And don’t claim that she’s nervous around men, because she’s perfectly amiable to Cam and Merripen.”
“She feels safe with them.”
“Why not with me?” Leo asked, offended.
“I believe,” Harry said thoughtfully, “it’s because she’s aware of you as a man.”
The revelation caused Leo’s heart to jolt. He examined the contents of his brandy snifter with studied boredom. “Did she tell you that?”
“No, I saw it for myself, in Hampshire.” Harry turned wry. “One has to be particularly observant where Cat is concerned. She won’t talk about herself.” He tossed off the rest of his brandy, set down the glass with care, and leaned back in his chair. “I never heard from my mother after she left Buffalo,” he said, lacing his fingers together and resting them on his flat midriff. “But when I reached the age of twenty, I received a letter bidding me to come to her. She had contracted a wasting disease, some form of cancer. I assumed that before she died, she wanted to see what had become of me. I left for England at once, but she died just before I arrived.”
“And that was when you met Marks,” Leo prompted.
“No, she wasn’t there. Despite Cat’s wishes to stay with her mother, she had been sent to stay with an aunt and grandmother on her father’s side. And the father, apparently unwilling to keep vigil by the sickbed, had left London altogether.”
“Noble fellow,” Leo said.
“A local woman had taken care of Nicolette during the last week of her life. It was she who told me about Cat. I gave a brief thought to visiting the child, but I decided against it. There was no place in my life for an illegitimate half sister. She was nearly half my age, and in need of female guidance. I assumed she was better off in her aunt’s care.”
“Was that assumption correct?” Leo brought himself to ask.
Harry gave him an inscrutable glance. “No.”
An entire story was contained in that one bleak syllable. Leo wanted very much to hear it. “What happened?”
“I decided to stay in England and try my hand at the hotel business. So I sent Cat a letter, telling her where to send word if she ever needed anything. Some years later, when she was fifteen, she wrote to me, asking for help. I found her in … difficult circumstances. I wish I had reached her a little sooner.”
Feeling a tug of unaccountable concern, Leo found it impossible to maintain his usual veneer of carelessness. “What do you mean, difficult circumstances?”
Harry shook his head. “I’m afraid that’s as much as I can tell you. The rest is up to Cat.”
“Damn it, Rutledge, you’re not leaving it there. I want to know how the Hathaways got involved in this, and why I had the misfortune to end up as the employer of the most ill-tempered and interfering governess in England.”
“Cat doesn’t have to work. She’s a woman of independent means. I settled enough money on her to allow her the freedom to do anything she wished. She went to boarding school for four years, and stayed to teach for another two. Eventually she came to me and said she’d accepted a position as a governess for the Hathaway family. I believe you were in France with Win at the time. Cat went for the interview, Cam and Amelia liked her, Beatrix and Poppy clearly needed her, and no one seemed inclined to question her lack of experience.”
“Of course not,” Leo said acidly. “My family would never bother with something so insignificant as job experience. I’m sure they started the interview by asking what her favorite color was.”
Harry was trying unsuccessfully not to smile. “No doubt you’re right.”