“You’ve changed more than I, William,” she said, trying to summon a smile. “How tall you’ve grown. Are you still … working for my grandmother?”
He shook his head and smiled ruefully. “She passed on two years ago, miss. Doctor said ’er heart gave out, but the girls at the ’ouse said it couldn’t be, she didn’t ’ave one.”
“Oh,” Catherine whispered, her face turning bleached and stiff. It was only to be expected, of course. Her grandmother had suffered from a heart ailment for years. She thought she should feel relieved by the news, but instead she only felt chilled. “And … my aunt? Is Althea still there?”
William cast a guarded glance around them. “She’s the madam now,” he said, his voice low. “I work for her, odd jobs, same as I did for your grandmother. But it’s a different place now, miss. Much worse.”
Compassion stirred inside her. How unfair it was for him to be trapped in such a life, with no training or education to afford him any other choice. Privately she resolved to ask Harry if there might be some kind of employment for William at the hotel, something that would lead him to a decent future. “How is my aunt?” she asked.
“Ailing, miss.” His thin face was sober. “Doctor said she must of got a bawdy-’ouse disease some years back … got in ’er joints and went up to ’er brain. Not well in the ’ead, your aunt. And she can’t see none too good, neither.”
“I’m sorry,” Catherine murmured, trying to feel pity, but instead a mass of fear rose in her throat. She tried to swallow it back, to ask more questions, but Leo interrupted brusquely.
“That’s enough,” he said. “The hackney’s waiting.”
Catherine gave her childhood friend a troubled glance. “Is there something I can do to help you, William? Do you need money?” She instantly regretted the question as she saw the shame and offended pride on his face. Had there been more time, had the circumstances allowed, she would have found a better way to ask.
William gave a stiff shake of his head. “Don’t need noffing, miss.”
“I’m at the Rutledge Hotel. If you wish to see me, if there is something I can—”
“I wouldn’t nivver trouble you, Miss Cathy. You was always kind to me. You brought me medicine once when I was sick, ’member? Came to the kitchen pallet where I slept, and covered me wiv one of the blankets from your bed. You sat on the floor and watched over me—”
“We’re leaving,” Leo said, flipping a coin to William.
William caught it in midair. His fist lowered, and he looked at Leo with a mixture of greed and resentment, his face turning hard. When he spoke, his accent was exaggerated. “Fank you, guvnah.”
Leo guided Catherine away with an uncompromising grasp on her elbow, and helped her into the carriage. By the time she had settled in the narrow seat and looked out again, William was gone.
The passenger seat was so small that the mass of Catherine’s skirts, layers of pink silk arranged like rose petals, spilled over one of Leo’s thighs.
Staring at her profile, Leo thought she looked stern and nettled, like the Marks of old.
“You needn’t have dragged me away like that,” she said. “You were rude to William.”
He gave her an unrepentant glance. “No doubt later, upon reflection, I’ll feel terrible about that.”
“There were some things I still wanted to ask him.”
“Yes, I’m sure there was quite a lot more to be learned about bawdy-house diseases. Forgive me for depriving you of such an enlightening conversation. I should have let the two of you reminisce about the good old times at the brothel while you were standing on a public street.”
“William was the dearest boy,” Catherine said quietly. “He deserved a better lot in life. He had to work from the time he could toddle, cleaning shoes and carrying heavy buckets of water up and down the stairs … he had no family, no education. Have you no sympathy at all for those in unfortunate circumstances?”
“The streets are filled with such children. I do what I can for them in Parliament, and I give to charity. Yes, I have sympathy for them. But at the moment I’m more interested in your unfortunate circumstances than anyone else’s. And I have a few questions for you, starting with this: What happened at intermission?”
When Catherine didn’t reply, he took her jaw in a gentle but secure grasp, and forced her to look at him. “Let’s have it.”
She gave him a strained glance. “Lord Latimer approached me.”
Leo’s eyes narrowed, his hand lowering from her chin. “While you were in the theater box?”
“Yes. Harry and Poppy didn’t see. Latimer spoke to me through the curtain at the back of the box seating.”
Leo was filled with explosive rage. For a moment he didn’t trust himself to speak. He wanted to go back and slaughter the bastard. “What did he say?” he asked roughly.
“That I was a prostitute. And a fraud.”
Leo wasn’t aware that his grip had tightened until she winced. His hand loosened instantly. “I’m sorry you were subjected to that,” he managed to say. “I shouldn’t have left you. I didn’t think he would dare approach you after the warning I gave him.”
“I think he wanted to make it clear that he’s not intimidated by you.” She drew an unsteady breath. “And I think it hurt his pride all those years ago, to have paid for something he didn’t receive. Perhaps I could give him some of the money Harry settled on me, and that might be enough to make him leave me alone. To keep quiet about me.”