Leo’s expression was grim. “Neither am I. But it won’t hold either of us—too much stress on the trusses. The ones above us are rotting, which means they probably all are.”
“Is there another way to reach her? From the third-story roof?”
“That would take too long. Keep talking to her while I find some rope.”
Leo disappeared, while Harry hung farther out the window. “Cat, it’s me,” he said. “It’s Harry. You know me, don’t you?”
“’Course I do.” Her head dropped to her bent knees, and she wobbled. “I’m so tired.”
“Cat, wait. This isn’t the time for a nap. Lift your head and look at me.” Harry continued to talk to her, encouraging her to stay still, stay awake, but she barely responded. More than once she altered her position, and Harry’s heart plummeted as he expected her to roll right off the winged gable.
To his relief, Leo returned in no time at all with a substantial length of rope. His face was misted with sweat, and he was drawing in deep lungfuls of air.
“That was fast,” Harry said, taking the rope from him.
“We’re next door to a notorious whipping den,” Leo said. “There was a lot of rope.”
Harry measured two spans of rope with his arms and began to tie a knot. “If you’re planning to coax her to come back to the window,” he said, “it won’t work. She won’t respond to anything I say.”
“You tie the knot. I’ll do the talking.”
Leo had never experienced fear like this before, not even when Laura had died. That had been a slow process of loss, watching her life slip away like sand from an hourglass. This was even worse. This was the deepest level of hell.
Leaning out the window, Leo stared at Catherine’s huddled, exhausted form. He understood the effects of the opium, the confusion and dizziness, the sense that one’s limbs were too heavy to move, and at the same time a feeling of buoyant lightness as if one could fly. And added to that, Catherine couldn’t even see.
If he managed to get her to safety, he was never going to let her out of his arms again.
“Well, Marks,” he said in as normal a voice as he could manage. “Of all the ridiculous situations you and I have found ourselves in, this one takes the biscuit.”
Her head lifted from her knees, and she squinted blindly in his direction. “My lord?”
“Yes, I’m going to help you. Stay still. Naturally you would make my heroic rescue effort as difficult as possible.”
“I didn’t plan on this.” Her voice was slurred, but there was a familiar—and welcome—touch of indignation in it. “Was trying to get away.”
“I know. And in just a minute, I’m going to bring you inside so that we can argue properly. For the time being—”
“Don’t want to.”
“Don’t want to come in?” Leo asked, puzzled.
“No, don’t want to argue.” She lowered her head to her knees again, and gave a muffled sob.
“Christ,” Leo said, his emotions nearly getting the better of him. “Darling love, please, we won’t argue. I promise. Don’t cry.” He took a shuddering breath as Harry handed him the rope, looped with a perfect bowline knot. “Cat, listen to me … lift your head and put your knees down just a little. I’m going to throw a rope to you, but it’s very important that you not reach for it, do you understand? Just sit still and let it fall into your lap.”
She held obediently still, squinting and blinking.
Leo let the loop swing a few times, testing its weight, estimating how much line to allow. He tossed it in a slow, careful motion, but the loop fell short of its mark, bouncing off the shingles near Catherine’s feet.
“You need to throw it harder,” she said.
Despite Leo’s desperation and bone-deep anxiety, he had to bite back a grin. “Will you ever stop telling me what to do, Marks?”
“I don’t think so,” she said after a moment’s reflection.
He gathered up the rope and tossed the loop again, and this time it caught neatly on her knees.
“I’ve got it.”
“Good girl,” Leo said. He fought to keep his voice calm. “Now, put your arms through the circle, and lift it over your head. I want it to go around your chest. Not too fast, keep your balance—” His breath quickened as she fumbled with the loop. “Yes, just so. Yes. God, I love you.” He let out breath of relief as he saw that the rope was in place, fitting just above her br**sts and beneath her arms. He gave the other end of the rope to Harry. “Don’t let go.”
“Not a chance.” Harry quickly tied it around his own waist.
Leo’s attention returned to Catherine, who was saying something to him, her face drawn with a frown. “What is it, Marks?”
“You didn’t have to say that.”
“I didn’t have to say what?”
“That you love me.”
“But I do.”
“No, you don’t. I heard you say to Win that…” Catherine paused, struggling to recollect. “That you would only marry a woman you were certain never to love.”
“I often say idiotic things,” Leo protested. “It never crossed my mind that anyone actually listens to me.”
A window opened in the brothel next door, and an annoyed prostitute leaned out. “There’s girls what’s tryin’ to sleep in ’ere, and you’re shoutin’ fit to wake the dead!”