“Althea talked to you,” Grandmother said, in a voice like dried leaves rubbing together.
Catherine struggled to force out words between sobs. “Yes … and I don’t underst … understand …”
Grandmother responded with a scratchy croon, pressing Catherine’s head on her lap. She stroked her hair, narrow fingers combing lightly through the loose locks. “Did Althea fail to explain adequately? Come, you’re not a clever girl, but neither are you stupid. What don’t you understand? Stop crying, you know I detest it.”
Catherine squeezed her eyes tightly, trying to stop the tears from slipping out. Her throat was tight with misery. “I want something else, anything else. I want a choice.”
“You don’t want to be like Althea?” The question was spoken with unnerving gentleness.
“And you don’t want to be like me?”
Catherine hesitated and shook her head slightly, afraid to say “no” again. She had learned in the past that the word should be used sparingly with her grandmother. It was an unfailing irritant regardless of the circumstances.
“But you already are,” Grandmother told her. “You’re a woman. All women have a whore’s life, child.”
Catherine froze, afraid to move. Her grandmother’s fingers became talons, the stroking changing into a sort of slow, rhythmic clawing on her head.
“All women sell themselves to men,” her grandmother continued. “Marriage itself is a transaction, in which a woman’s value is tied to purposes of copulation and breeding. At least we, in our time-honored profession, are honest about it.” Her tone turned reflective. “Men are foul, brutish creatures. But they own the world and always will. And to get the most from them, you must practice submission. You’ll be very good at it, Catherine. I’ve seen the instinct in you. You like being told what to do. You’ll like it even more when you’re paid for it.” Her hand lifted from Catherine’s head. “Now, don’t trouble me again. You may ask Althea all the questions you like. Mind you, when she began on her career, she was no happier about it than you. But she quickly saw the advantages of her situation. And we all have to earn our keep, don’t we? Even you, dear. Being my granddaughter affords you no entitlement. And fifteen minutes on your back will earn you as much as other women earn in two or three days. Willing submission, Catherine.”
Feeling stunned, as if she had just fallen from a great height, Catherine had left her grandmother’s study. She knew a momentary, mad urge to bolt for the front door. But without a place to go to, without money, an unprotected girl would last only a matter of hours in London. The trapped sobs in her chest had dissolved into shivers.
She went upstairs to her room. But then the dream changed, the memories transforming into dark vagaries of imagination … becoming a nightmare. The stairs seemed to multiply, and the climb became difficult and she went upward into deeper and deeper shadows. Alone and shivering with cold, she reached her room, illuminated only by the glaze of moonlight.
There was a man sitting at the window. He was straddling the frame, actually, one long leg placed firmly on the floor, the other swinging negligently outside. She knew him from the shape of his head, from the powerful lines of his silhouette. And from the dark, a velvety voice that lifted the hairs on the back of her neck.
“There you are. Come here, Marks.”
Catherine was suffused with relief and yearning. “My lord, what are you doing here?” she cried, running to him.
“Waiting for you.” His arms went around her. “I’ll take you far away from here—would you like that?”
“Oh, yes, yes … but how?”
“We’ll go right out this window. I have a ladder.”
“But is it safe? Are you certain—”
He put his hand gently to her mouth, silencing her. “Trust me.” His hand pressed harder. “I won’t let you fall.”
She tried to tell him that she would go anywhere with him, do anything he said, but he was covering her mouth too tightly for her to speak. His grip became hurtful, clamping on her jaw. She couldn’t breathe.
Catherine’s eyes opened. The nightmare fell away, revealing a far worse reality. She struggled beneath a crushing weight, and tried to cry out against the callused hand that covered her mouth.
“Your aunt wants to see you,” came a voice in the darkness. “I ’as to do this, miss. I ’as no choice.”
In the space of just a few minutes, it was done.
William gagged her with a tight cloth that bit into her mouth, a large knot pressing hard against her tongue. After binding her hands and feet, he went to light a lamp. Even without the aid of her spectacles, Catherine perceived that he wore the dark blue coat of a Rutledge Hotel employee.
If only she could get a few words out, plead or bargain with him, but the knotted lump of cloth made coherent sound impossible. Her saliva spiked unpleasantly at the intensely acrid flavor of the gag. There was something on it, she realized, and at that same moment she felt her consciousness breaking into pieces, scattered like an unfinished puzzle. Her heart turned sluggish, pumping poisoned blood through her collapsing limbs, and there was a ballooning, thumping sensation in her head as if her brain had suddenly become too large for her skull.
William came to her with a hotel laundry bag. He began to pull it over her, starting at her feet. He didn’t look at her face, only kept his gaze on his task. She watched passively, seeing that he took care to keep the hem of her nightgown primly down at her ankles. Some distant part of her brain wondered at the small kindness of preserving her modesty.