Through a quirk of fate Leo had inherited a vis-councy, which had taken care of the first part of the equation. And now after the long stay in France, he had limited his drinking to a glass of wine or two at supper. Which meant he was relatively certain of being received at any dull and respectable event in London that he had no desire to attend.
He only hoped that the formidable Miss Marks would try to correct him. It might be amusing to set her back on her heels.
Leo knew next to nothing about governesses, save for the drab creatures in novels, who tended to fall in love with the lord of the manor, always with bad results. However, Miss Marks was entirely safe from him. For a change, he had no interest in seducing anyone. His former dissipated pursuits had lost their power to enthrall him.
On one of Leo's ambles around Provence to visit some Gallo-Roman architectural remains, he had encountered one of his old professors from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. The chance meeting had resulted in a renewed acquaintanceship. In the months to come, Leo had spent many an afternoon sketching, reading, and studying in the professor's atelier, or workshop. Leo had arrived at some conclusions that he intended to put to the test now that he was back in England.
As he strolled nonchalantly along the long hallway that led to the Hathaway suite, he heard rapid footsteps. Someone was running toward him from the other direction. Moving to the side, Leo waited with his hands tucked in his trouser pockets.
"Come here, you little fiend!" he heard a woman snarl. "You oversized rat! When I get my hands on you, I'll rip out your innards!"
The bloodthirsty tone was unladylike. Appalling. Leo was vastly entertained. The footsteps drew closer… but there was only one set of them. Who on earth could she be chasing?
It quickly became clear that she was not pursuing a "who" but a "what." The furry, slithery body of a ferret came loping along the hallway with a frilly object clamped in his mouth. Most hotel guests would no doubt be disconcerted by the sight of a small carnivorous mammal streaking toward them. However, Leo had lived for years with Beatrix's creatures: mice appearing in his pockets, baby rabbits in his shoes, hedgehogs wandering casually past the dining table. Smiling, he watched the ferret hurry past him.
The woman came soon after, a mass of rustling gray skirts as she ran full bore after the creature. But if there was one thing ladies' clothing was not designed to do, it was to facilitate ease of movement. Weighted by layers and layers of fabric, she stumbled and fell a few yards away from Leo. A pair of spectacles went flying to the side.
Leo was at her side in an instant, crouching on the floor as he sorted through the hissing tangle of limbs and skirts. "Are you hurt? I feel certain there's a woman in here somewhere… Ah, there you are. Easy, now. Let me-"
"Don't touch me," she snapped, batting at him with her fists.
"I'm not touching you. That is, I'm only touching you with the-ow, damn it-with the intention of helping." Her hat, a little scrap of wool felt with cheap corded trim, had fallen over her face. Leo managed to push it back to the top of her head, narrowly missing a sharp blow to his jaw. "Christ. Would you stop flailing for a moment?"
Straggling to a sitting position, she glared at him.
Leo crawled to retrieve the spectacles and returned to hand them to her. She snatched them from him without a word of thanks.
She was a lean, anxious-looking woman. A young woman with narrowed eyes, from which bad temper flashed out. Her light brown hair was pulled back with a gallows-rope tightness that made Leo wince just to see it. One would have hoped for some compensating feature-a soft pair of lips, perhaps, or a pretty bosom. But no, there was only a stern mouth, a flat chest, and gaunt cheeks. If Leo were compelled to spend any time with her-which, thankfully, he wasn't-he would have started by feeding her.
"If you want to help," she said coldly, hooking the spectacles around her ears, "retrieve that blasted ferret for me. Perhaps I've tired him enough that you may be able to run him to ground."
Still crouching on the floor, Leo glanced at the ferret, which had paused ten yards away and was watching them both with bright, beady eyes. "What is his name?"
Leo gave a low whistle and a few clicks of his tongue. "Come here, Dodger. You've caused enough trouble for the morning. Though I can't fault your taste in… ladies' garters? Is that what you're holding?"
The woman watched, stupefied, as the ferret's long, slender body wriggled toward Leo. Chattering busily, Dodger crawled onto Leo's thigh. "Good fellow," Leo said, stroking the sleek fur.
"How did you do that?" the woman asked in annoyance.
"I have a way with animals. They tend to acknowledge me as one of their own." Leo gently pried a frilly bit of lace and ribbon from the long front teeth. It was definitely a garter, deliciously feminine and impractical. He gave the woman a mocking smile as he handed it to her. "No doubt this is yours."
He hadn't really thought that, of course. He had assumed the garter belonged to someone else. It was impossible to fathom this stern female wearing something so frivolous. But as he saw a blush spreading across the young woman's cheeks, he realized it actually was hers. Intriguing.
He gestured with the ferret hanging relaxed in his hand and said, "I take it this animal doesn't belong to you?"
"No, to one of my charges."
"Are you by chance a governess?"
"That is no concern of yours."