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She was not alone.
Leo stopped at twenty yards’ distance, drawing into the shade of a heavily foliated yew.
Marks was sitting beside Poppy’s new husband, Harry Rutledge. They were engaged in what appeared to be an intimate conversation.
Although the situation wasn’t precisely incriminating, neither was it appropriate.
What in God’s name could they be talking about? Even from this remote vantage, it was clear that something of significance was being said. Harry Rutledge’s dark head was inclined over hers protectively. Like a close friend. Like a lover.
Leo’s mouth fell open as he saw Marks reaching beneath her spectacles with a delicate hand, as if to wipe away a tear.
Marks was crying, in the company of Harry Rutledge.
And then Rutledge kissed her on the forehead.
Leo’s breath stopped. Holding still, he sorted through an emulsion of emotions and separated them into layers … amazement, worry, suspicion, fury.
They were hiding something. Plotting something.
Had Rutledge once kept her as a mistress? Was he blackmailing her, or was she perhaps extorting something from him? No … the tenderness between the pair was evident even at this distance.
Leo rubbed the lower half of his jaw as he considered what to do. Poppy’s happiness was more important than any other consideration. Before he went dashing over to beat his sister’s new husband to a bloody pulp, he would find out exactly what the situation was. And then, if circumstances warranted, he would beat Rutledge to a bloody pulp.
Taking slow, measured breaths, Leo watched the pair. Rutledge stood and went back to the house, while Marks remained seated on the bench.
Without making a conscious decision, Leo approached her slowly. He wasn’t certain how he was going to treat her, or what he was going to say. It depended on which impulse leaped out most strongly the moment he reached her. It was entirely possible that he would throttle her. It was equally likely that he would pull her to the sun-warmed grass and ravish her. He found himself stewing in a hot, unpleasant rush of feeling that wasn’t at all familiar. Was it jealousy? Christ, it was. He was jealous over a skinny termagant who insulted and nagged him at every opportunity.
Was this some new level of depravity? Had he developed a spinster fetish?
Perhaps it was her very reserve that Leo found so erotic … he had always been fascinated by the question of what it would take to demolish it. Catherine Marks, his fiendish little adversary … naked and moaning beneath him. There was nothing he’d ever wanted more. And that made sense, actually: When a woman was easy and willing, there was no challenge in it. But taking Marks to bed, making it last a long time, tormenting her until she begged and screamed … now, that would be fun.
Leo walked toward her casually, not missing the way she stiffened at the sight of him. Her face became pinched and unhappy, her mouth strict. Leo imagined taking her head in his hands, kissing her for long lascivious minutes, until she was limp and gasping in his arms.
Instead he stood with his fists in his coat pockets, surveying her without expression. “Care to explain what that was all about?”
The sun glinted on the lenses of Marks’s spectacles, momentarily obscuring her eyes. “You’ve been spying on me, my lord?”
“Hardly. Whatever spinsters do in their personal time doesn’t interest me in the least. But it’s difficult not to notice when my brother-in-law is kissing the governess out in the garden.”
One had to give Marks credit for composure. She showed no reaction except for the tightening of her hands in her lap. “One kiss,” she said. “On the forehead.”
“It doesn’t matter how many kisses, or where they landed. You’re going to explain to me why he did it. And why you let him. And try to make it credible, because I’m this close”—Leo held his thumb and forefinger a mere quarter inch apart—“to dragging you bodily to the coach road and putting you on the next cart bound for London.”
“Go to the devil,” she said in a low voice, and sprang to her feet. She had taken only two strides before he caught her from behind. “Don’t touch me!”
Leo turned her to face him, controlling her easily. His hands closed over her slender upper arms. He could feel the warmth of her skin through the thin muslin of her sleeves. As he held her, the innocent scent of lavender water rose to his nostrils. There was a faint dusting of talc at the base of her throat. The fragrance of her reminded Leo of a freshly made bed with pressed sheets. And oh, how he wanted to slip into her.
“You have too many secrets, Marks. You’ve been a thorn in my side for more than a year, with your sharp tongue and your mysterious past. Now I want some answers. What were you discussing with Harry Rutledge?”
Her fine brows, several shades darker than her hair, gathered in a scowl. “Why don’t you ask him?”
“I’ve asked you. ” Met with her mulish silence, Leo decided to provoke her. “Were you a different kind of woman, I’d suspect you of casting your lures at him. But we both know you don’t have any lures, don’t we?”
“If I did, I certainly wouldn’t use them on you!”
“Come, Marks, let’s attempt a civil conversation. Just this once.”
“Not until you take your hands off me.”
“No, you’d only run. And it’s too hot to chase after you.”
Catherine bristled and pushed at him, her palms flattening against his chest. Her body was neatly packaged in stays and laces and countless yards of muslin. The thought of what was beneath … pink and white skin, soft curves, intimate curls … aroused him instantly.