“I thought of running away,” Althea said. “I asked my brother—your father—to help me. He lived with us then, coming and going as he pleased. Using the whores for free any time he wanted, and they didn’t dare complain to Mother. ‘I need just a little money,’ I told him. ‘I’ll go far away to the country.’ But he went to Mother and told her what I’d asked. I wasn’t let out of the house for months afterward.”
From what little Catherine remembered of her father, a brusque and pitiless individual, this story was easy to believe. But she found herself asking distantly, “Why didn’t he help you?”
“My brother liked the situation as it was—he had the best of everything without lifting a finger. Mother gave him whatever he wanted. And the selfish pig didn’t mind sacrificing me to keep himself comfortable. He was a man, you see.” She paused. “So I became a whore. And for years I prayed for rescue. But God doesn’t hear the prayers of women. He cares only for those He made in His own image.”
Befuddled and squinting, Catherine labored to keep her thoughts in order. “Aunt,” she said carefully, “why did you bring me here? If that was done to you … why must it be done to me?”
“Why should you escape when I couldn’t? I want you to become me. Just as I became Mother.”
Yes … this was one of Catherine’s fears, the worst one. That if she were put in the wrong situation, the wickedness in her own nature would take over all the rest.
Except … it wouldn’t.
Catherine’s foggy brain seized on the idea and turned it over, examining it. The past was not the future. “I’m not like you,” she said slowly. “Won’t ever be. I grieve for what was done to you, Aunt. But I didn’t make the same choice.”
“I have a choice for you now.”
Despite Catherine’s opiated detachment, Althea’s caressing tone made her flesh creep.
“You will either make good on that long-ago arrangement with Lord Latimer,” Althea continued, “or you will service customers in the brothel, as I did. Which shall it be?”
Catherine refused to choose. “Doesn’t matter what you do,” she said, drugged but intractable. “Nothing will change who I am.”
“And who are you?” Althea’s voice dripped with contempt. “A decent woman? Too good for the likes of this place?”
Catherine’s head became too heavy for her to hold up any longer. She lowered herself to the settee, resting her head on the arm. “A woman who is loved.”
It was the worst, most hurtful answer she could have given Althea. And it was the truth.
Unable to open her eyes, Catherine was aware of a bustling movement nearby, of Althea’s tentaclelike grip on her face, of the leather hose from the hookah shoved between her lips. Her nose was pinched shut, and she breathed in helplessly. A flood of cool, pungent smoke entered her lungs. She coughed, and was forced to draw it in again, and then she wilted into a placid and near-insensible heap.
“Take her upstairs, William,” Althea said. “To her old bedroom. Later we’ll move her to the brothel.”
“Yes, ma’am.” William gathered Catherine up carefully. “Ma’am … may I undo her wrists?”
Althea shrugged. “She certainly won’t go anywhere under her own power.”
William carried Catherine upstairs, settled her on the small, musty bed of her old room, and untied her hands. He arranged her arms with her hands touching at her middle, in the position of a body in a casket. “Sorry, miss,” he murmured, looking into her half-open, unseeing eyes. “She’s all I ’ave. I ’as to do what she says.”
Guy, Lord Latimer, lived in a newer section of London on the west side, with a picturesque and peaceful common, and a row of stucco-fronted houses built in a deeply wooded hollow. Leo had visited the house on more than one occasion, several years earlier. Although the street and the house were neatly kept, the place was littered with distasteful memories that would have made an East End slum look like a rectory by comparison.
Dismounting from his horse before it had even halted, Leo raced up to the front door and pounded on it with his fists. All his thoughts had diverted into parallel currents, one occupied with the anguished desperation to find Catherine before harm could come to her. Or, if something already had befallen her—please, God, no—how to make her well again.
The other current was directed toward the one goal of turning Latimer into butcher’s refuse.
There was no sign of Harry yet—Leo was certain that he was not far behind, but Leo had no inclination to wait for him.
A perturbed-looking butler opened the door, and Leo shouldered his way in. “Sir—”
“Where is your master?” Leo asked brusquely.
“I beg your pardon, sir, but he is not—” The butler broke off with an astonished yelp as Leo grabbed him by the coat and shoved him against the nearest wall. “Good God. Sir, I beg you—”
“Tell me where he is.”
“The … the library … but he’s not well…”
Leo’s lips curled in an evil smile. “I have just the cure for him.”
A footman came into the hall, and the butler began to sputter for help, but Leo had already released him. In a matter of seconds he had reached the library. It was dark and overheated, an unseasonably large fire blazing in the hearth. Latimer was slumped in a chair, his chin on his chest, a half-empty bottle in one hand. With his bloated face lit by tongues of yellow and red flame, he looked like a damned soul. His incurious gaze lifted to the harsh contours of Leo’s face, and Leo saw from his difficulty in focusing that he was sow-drunk. Too bloody drunk to see a hole in a ladder. It would have taken hours of steady imbibing to arrive at this state.