“What about the books you wanted?”
“I’ll fetch them later.”
As she turned to depart, however, the edge of her bell-shaped sleeve caught the stack of sketches she had just straightened, and they went spilling to the floor. “Oh, dear.” Instantly she went to her hands and knees, gathering up papers.
“Leave them,” she heard Leo say. “I’ll do it.”
“No, I’m the one who—”
Catherine broke off as she saw something among the drafts of structures and landscapes and the pages of notes. A pencil sketch of a woman … a na**d woman reclining on her side, light hair flowing everywhere. One slender thigh rested coyly over the other, partially concealing the delicate shadow of a feminine triangle.
And there was an all-too-familiar pair of spectacles balanced on her nose.
Catherine picked up the sketch with a trembling hand, while her heart lurched in hard strikes against her ribs. It took several attempts before she could speak, her voice high and airless.
Leo had lowered to the carpeted floor beside her. He nodded, looking rueful. His own color heightened until his eyes were startlingly blue in contrast.
“Why?” she whispered.
“It wasn’t meant to be demeaning,” he said. “It was for my own eyes, no one else’s.”
She forced herself to look at the sketch again, feeling horribly exposed. In fact, she couldn’t have been more embarrassed had he actually been viewing her naked. And yet the rendering was far from crude or debasing. The woman had been drawn with long, graceful lines, the pose artistic. Sensuous.
“You … you’ve never seen me like this,” she managed to say, before adding weakly, “Have you?”
A self-deprecating smile touched his lips. “No, I haven’t yet descended to voyeurism.” He paused. “Did I get it right? It’s not easy, guessing what you look like beneath all those layers.”
A nervous giggle struggled through her mortification. “If you did, I certainly wouldn’t admit it.” She put the sketch onto the pile, facedown. Her hand was shaking. “Do you draw other women this way?” she asked timidly.
Leo shook his head. “I started with you, and so far I haven’t moved on.”
Her flush deepened. “You’ve done other sketches like this? Of me unclothed?”
“One or two.” He tried to look repentant.
“Oh, please, please destroy them.”
“Certainly. But honesty compels me to tell you that I’ll probably only do more. It’s my favorite hobby, drawing you naked.”
Catherine moaned and buried her face in her hands. Her voice slipped out between the tense filter of her fingers. “I wish you would take up collecting something instead.”
She heard his husky laugh. “Cat. Darling. Can you bring yourself to look at me? No?” She stiffened but didn’t move as she felt his arms draw around her. “I was only teasing. I won’t sketch you like that again.” Leo continued to hold her, carefully guiding her face to his good shoulder. “Are you angry?”
She shook her head.
“No.” She drew a trembling breath. “Only surprised that you would see me that way.”
“Because it’s not like me.”
He understood what she meant. “No one ever sees himself—or herself—with perfect accuracy.”
“I’m certain that I never lounge about completely naked!”
“That,” he said, “is a terrible shame.” He took a ragged breath. “You should know that I’ve always wanted you, Cat. I’ve had fantasies so wicked, it would send us both straight to hell if I told them to you. And the way I want you has nothing to do with the color of your hair, or the appalling fashions you wear.” His hand passed gently over her head. “Catherine Marks, or whoever you are … I have the most profane desire to be in bed with you for … oh, weeks, at least … committing every mortal sin known to man. I’d like to do more than sketch you naked. I want to draw directly on you with feather and ink … flowers around your br**sts, trails of stars down your thighs.” He let his warm lips brush the edge of her ear. “I want to map your body, chart the north, south, east, and west of you. I would—”
“Don’t,” she said, scarcely able to breathe.
A rueful laugh escaped him. “I told you. Straight to hell.”
“This is my fault.” She pressed her hot face against his shoulder. “I shouldn’t have gone to you last night. I don’t know why I did it.”
“I think you do.” His mouth grazed the top of her head. “Don’t come back to my room at night, Marks. Because if it happens again, I won’t be able to stop.”
His arms loosened, and he released her to stand up from the floor. Reaching for her hand, he pulled her up with him. The sheaf of fallen papers was retrieved, and Leo took up the sketch of her. The parchment was neatly ripped, the pieces folded together, and ripped again. He gave her the shreds of paper and molded her fingers around them. “I’ll destroy the others as well.”
Catherine stood without moving as he left the room. And her fingers tightened over the strips of parchment, crushing them into a damp knot.
In the month that followed, Leo deliberately kept himself too busy to see much of Catherine. Two new tenant farms required irrigation schemes. It was a subject on which Leo had developed a certain amount of expertise while Cam worked with the horses and Merripen supervised the timber harvesting. Leo had designed water meadows that would be irrigated with rills and ditches leading from the nearby rivers. In one place where the channel would run too low to be let out naturally, they would require a waterwheel. The wheel, provided with buckets, would lift out the necessary amount of water and send it along a manmade canal.