“Leo,” she whispered, her hand fluttering to his mouth. What she saw in his face frightened her. “Please.”
Relief partially smoothed Poppy’s brow as her husband entered the apartment. “Harry, is there any sign?”
Harry’s face was grim and hard. “One of the night stewards said that last night he saw a man dressed as an employee—he assumed he was newly hired—carrying a laundry sack down the back stairs. He noticed it because the housemaids usually take care of laundry, and never at that time of night.” He put a restraining hand on Leo’s shoulder, and Leo shook him off. “Ramsay, keep your head. I know what you assume, and you’re probably right. But you can’t go dashing off like a madman. We need to—”
“Try and stop me,” Leo said in a guttural tone. There was no controlling what had been unleashed in him. He was gone before Harry could draw another breath.
“Christ,” Harry muttered, dragging his hands through his black hair. He gave Poppy a distracted glance. “Find Valentine,” he said. “He’s still talking with the floor managers. Tell him to go to Special Constable Hembrey—or whoever he can find at Bow Street, and let them know what’s happening. Hembrey can start by sending a man to Lord Latimer’s house. Tell Valentine to say there’s a murder in progress.”
“Leo won’t kill Lord Latimer,” Poppy said, her face blanched.
“If he doesn’t,” Harry replied with cold certainty, “I will.”
Catherine awakened in a strange euphoria, light-headed and listless, and very glad to awaken from her nightmares. Except that when she opened her eyes, she was still in a nightmare, in a room hazed with sickening-sweet smoke, the windows shrouded with heavy curtains.
She took a long time to collect herself, straining to see without spectacles. Her jaw was sore, her mouth unbearably dry. She was desperate for a sip of cold water, a breath of clean air. Her wrists were fastened behind her back. She half reclined, half sat on a settee, dressed in her nightgown. Awkwardly she used her shoulder to try to push back some of the loose tangles of her hair that had fallen over her face.
Catherine knew this room, blurry as it was. And she knew the old woman sitting near her, stick thin and dressed in black. The woman’s hands moved with the delicacy of an insect’s pincers as she lifted a thin leather hose attached to a hookah vase. Putting the hose to her lips, she sucked in a breath, held it, and expelled a puff of white smoke.
“Grandmother?” Catherine asked, her voice rough, her tongue thick in her mouth.
The woman moved closer, until her face came into Catherine’s limited view. A powdered white face, vermillon lips. Hard, familiar eyes rimmed with kohl. “She’s dead. It’s my house now. My business.”
Althea, Catherine realized in dull horror. A cadaverous version of Althea, the once attractive features shrunken and calcified. The face powder covered the top stratum of skin but hadn’t settled into the web of wrinkles, giving her complexion the appearance of crackled glaze on porcelain. She was far more fearsome than even Grandmother had been. And she looked more than a little mad, her eyes bulging and blue-glazed like those of a baby bird.
“William told me he’d seen you,” Althea said. “And I said, ‘We must fetch her for a long overdue visit, mustn’t we?’ It took a bit of planning on his part, but he executed it nicely.” She glanced into a shadowed corner. “You’re a good boy, William.”
He replied in an unintelligible murmur. Or at least it was unintelligible to Catherine, through the irregular pulse that thumped in her ears. It seemed the inner systems of her body had been rearranged, a new order of channels and nerves that she couldn’t quite integrate.
“May I have some water?” she asked hoarsely.
“William, give our guest some water.”
He complied clumsily, going to fill a glass, standing over Catherine. Holding the cup to her lips, he watched as she sipped carefully. The water was instantly absorbed into the parched tissue of her lips, inner cheeks, throat. It carried a dusty, brackish taint, or perhaps that was just the taste of her mouth.
William retreated, and Catherine waited while her aunt puffed thoughtfully on the hookah.
“Mother never forgave you,” Althea said, “for running away as you did. Lord Latimer hounded us for years, demanding the return of his money … or you. But you don’t care about what trouble you caused. You never gave a thought to what you owed.”
Catherine fought to keep her head steady, when it kept lolling to the side. “I didn’t owe you my body.”
“You thought you were too good for that. You wanted to avoid my downfall. You wanted a choice.” Althea paused, as if waiting for confirmation. When none was forthcoming, she continued with soft vehemence. “But why should you have one when I didn’t? My own mother came to my bedroom one night. She said she’d brought a nice gentleman to help tuck me in. But first he was going to show me some new games. After that night, there was no innocent part of me left. I was twelve.”
Another long inhalation through the hookah, another dizzying puff of smoke. There was no way for Catherine to avoid breathing in more. The room seemed to sway gently, as Catherine had imagined the deck of a ship would rock at sea. She floated on the waves, buoyant, listening to Althea’s seething. And she felt a stirring of sympathy, but like the rest of her emotions, it remained deep under the surface, drowning.