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Poppy asked Lady Despencer about one of her children, who had been ill recently, and the woman listed all the medications and precautions it had taken for their ailing son to get well. Another cluster of people entered the box, waiting for a turn to speak to Harry, and Catherine moved to make room for them. She stood at the back of the box beside the curtain panels, waiting with forced patience as conversation flowed in currents in the hallway, in the box, large swells of noise rising from the audience below. The relentless clamor and movement irritated her. It was stuffy in the theater, the air warm from the mass of human bodies crowding everywhere. She hoped that intermission would conclude soon.

As she stood with her hands behind her back, she felt a hand reach through the box curtains and close around her wrist. A masculine body pressed behind hers. A smile touched her lips as she wondered what game Leo was playing.

But the voice that slithered into her ear wasn’t Leo’s. It was a voice from her nightmares.

“How pretty you look in your fine feathers, my pigeon.”

Chapter Twenty-five

Catherine stiffened, her hand clenching into a fist, but she couldn’t jerk her arm away from Lord Latimer’s grasp. He twisted her gloved wrist, forced it an inch or two higher, and continued to speak in a soft undertone.

Stunned and frozen, Catherine could hear nothing at first but the frantic velocity of her heartbeat. Time seemed to flicker, falter, and resume at a crawl. “…so many questions about you…” he was saying, his voice saturated with contempt. “Everyone wants to know more about Rutledge’s enigmatic sister … is she fair or ill-favored? Accomplished or vulgar? Endowed or destitute? Perhaps I should supply the answers. ‘She’s a beauty,’ I’ll tell my curious friends, ‘trained by an infamous procuress. She’s a fraud. And most of all she’s a whore.—”

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Catherine was quiet, breathing through flared nostrils. She couldn’t make a scene during her first public outing as Harry’s sister. Any conflict with Lord Latimer would expose their past connection, and bring about her social ruin that much faster.

“Why don’t you further explain,” she whispered, “that you’re a filthy lecher who tried to rape a fifteen-year-old girl?”

“Tsk, tsk … You should know better, Catherine. People never blame a man for his passions, no matter how perverse. People blame the woman for arousing them. You won’t get far, asking for sympathy. The public despises victimized women, especially attractive ones.”

“Lord Ramsay will—”

“Ramsay will use you and discard you, which is what he does with all women. Surely you’re not so vain or stupid as to think you’re different from the others.”

“What do you want?” she asked through gritted teeth.

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“I want what I paid for,” he whispered, “all those years ago. And I’ll have it. There’s no other future for you, my dear. You were never meant for a respectable life. By the time you’ve been run through the rumor mills, you’ll never have a chance of being received anywhere.”

The manacling fingers fell away, and her tormentor disappeared.

Stricken, Catherine stumbled forward to her chair and sat heavily, trying to compose herself. She stared straight ahead, seeing nothing, while the clamor of the theater pressed around her from all sides. She tried to examine her fear objectively, to put a barrier around it. It wasn’t that she actually feared Latimer. She loathed him, but he was certainly not the threat to her now that he once had been. She now had sufficient wealth to live as she pleased. She had Harry and Poppy, and the Hathaways.

But Latimer had identified her legitimate worries with cruel accuracy. One could fight a man, but not a rumor. One could lie about the past, but the truth would eventually surface. One could promise fidelity and commitment, but such promises were often broken.

She felt overwhelmed with melancholy. She felt … stained.

Poppy sat next to her, smiling. “Nearly time for the second act,” she said. “Do you think the peasant will gain revenge against the prince?”

“Oh, undoubtedly,” Catherine replied, trying to sound light, but her voice was forced.

Poppy’s smile faded, and she looked at her closely. “Do you feel well, dear? You look pale. Did something happen?”

Before Catherine replied, Leo shouldered his way back into the box, accompanied by a steward bearing a tray of champagne. A little bell rang from the orchestra box, signaling that the intermission would soon conclude. To Catherine’s relief, the visitors began to drift out of the box, and the throng in the hallway receded.

“Here we are,” Leo said, handing champagne to Poppy and Catherine. “You may want to drink it quickly.”

“Why?” Catherine asked, forcing a smile.

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“The champagne goes flat much faster in these coupe glasses.”

Catherine drained her champagne with unladylike haste, closing her eyes and swallowing against the sparkling burn in her throat.

“I didn’t mean that quickly,” Leo said, viewing her with a faint, concerned smile.

The lights began to dim, and the audience settled.

Catherine glanced at the silver stand where the bottle of chilled champagne had been placed, a white napkin tied neatly at its neck. “May I have another?” she whispered.

“No, you’ll get tipsy if you have it so soon.” Leo took the empty glass from her, set it aside, and took her gloved hand in his. “Tell me,” he said gently. “What are you thinking about?”

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