Pleasantly tired after the long ramble with Beatrix, Catherine sat at her dressing table and took down her hair. She scrubbed her fingers over her scalp and through the loose blond waves, soothing the little aches left from tight braids and hairpins.
A happy chatter came from behind her, and she turned to see Beatrix’s pet ferret, Dodger, emerging from beneath her dresser. His long, sinuous body arced gracefully as he loped toward her with a white glove in his teeth. The mischievous thief liked to filch things from drawers and boxes and closets, and hide them in secret piles. To Catherine’s frustration, Dodger especially loved her possessions. It had become a ritual humiliation to go through Ramsay House in search of her own garters.
“You overgrown rat,” Catherine told him as he stood tall and braced his tiny paws on the edge of her chair. She reached out to pet his sleek fur, tickled the top of his head, and carefully pried the glove from his teeth. “Having stolen all my garters, you’re moving on to gloves, are you?”
He regarded her affectionately, his eyes bright in the dark stripe that formed a mask across his face.
“Where have you hidden my things?” she asked, setting the glove on the dressing table. “If I don’t find my garters soon, I’ll have to keep my stockings up with pieces of old string.”
Dodger twitched his whiskers and appeared to grin at her, displaying tiny pointed teeth. He wriggled invitingly.
Smiling reluctantly, Catherine picked up a hairbrush and drew it through the loose locks of her hair. “No, I don’t have time to play with you. I’m getting ready for dinner.”
In a liquid and lightning-fast movement, the ferret leaped to her lap, snatched the glove from the table, and streaked from the room.
“Dodger,” Catherine exclaimed, dashing after him. “Bring that back!” She went out into the hallway, where maids were rushing back and forth with unusual haste. Dodger disappeared around the corner.
“Virgie,” Catherine asked one of the maids, “what is happening?”
The dark-haired girl was breathless and smiling. “Lord Leo has just come from London, miss, and the housekeeper told us to ready his room and set another place for dinner, and unpack the luggage when the footmen bring it up.”
“So soon?” Catherine asked, feeling the color drain from her face. “But he didn’t send word. No one expected him.”
I didn’t expect him, was what she meant.
Virgie shrugged and hurried away with an armload of folded linens.
Catherine put a hand to her midriff, where nerves were leaping, and retreated into her room. She wasn’t ready to face Leo. It wasn’t fair that he had come back so soon.
Of course, it was his estate. But still …
She paced in a tight circle and tried to marshal the chaos of her thoughts. There was only one solution: She would avoid Leo. She would plead a headache and stay in her room.
In the midst of her turmoil, there was a tap on the door. Someone entered without waiting for a response. Catherine nearly choked on her own heartbeat as she saw Leo’s tall, familiar form.
“How dare you come into my room without…” Her voice faded as he closed the door.
Leo turned to face her, his gaze sweeping over her. He was travel-rumpled and a bit dusty. His hair wanted a good brushing, the dark brown locks disheveled and falling over his forehead. He looked self-possessed but cautious, the ever-present mockery in his eyes replaced by something she couldn’t identify. Something new.
Catherine’s hand drew into a fist against her midriff, and she struggled to catch up with her own breathing. She held still as he approached her, while her heart pounded with a dizzying mixture of dread and excitement.
Leo’s hands went on either side of her shrinking body and gripped the edge of the dressing table behind her. He was too close, his masculine vitality surrounding her. He smelled like outside air, like dust and horses, like a healthy young male. As he leaned over her, one of his knees pressed gently into the mass of her skirts.
“Why did you come back?” she asked weakly.
He stared directly into her eyes. “You know why.”
Before Catherine could stop herself, her gaze dropped to the firm contours of his mouth.
“Cat … we have to talk about what happened.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
He inclined his head slightly. “Would you like me to remind you?”
“No, no…” She shook her head for emphasis. “No.”
His lips twitched. “One ‘no’ is enough, darling.”
Filled with anxiety, Catherine fought to keep her voice steady. “I thought I made it clear that I wanted to ignore what happened.”
“And you expect that will make it go away?”
“Yes, that’s what one does with mistakes,” she said with difficulty. “One sets them aside and moves on.”
“Really?” Leo asked innocently. “My mistakes are usually so enjoyable that I tend to repeat them.”
Catherine wondered what was wrong with her that she was tempted to smile. “This one will not be repeated.”
“Ah, there’s the governess voice. All stern and disapproving. It makes me feel like a naughty schoolboy.” One of his hands lifted to caress the edge of her jaw.
Her body raced with conflicting impulses, her skin craving his touch, her instincts warning her to move away from him. The result was a kind of stunned immobility, every muscle drawing up taut. “If you don’t leave my room this instant,” she heard herself say, “I’ll make a scene.”