“How convenient,” Leo said, his eyes narrowed. “I suppose you never bothered to ask the girl if she desired the arrangement?”

“Irrelevant. The agreement was all to her benefit. It was her fortune to be born a beauty, and she would learn how to profit from it. Besides, they’re all prostitutes, aren’t they? It’s only a question of circumstance and price.” Latimer paused, smiling quizzically. “She told you none of this?”

Leo ignored the question. “What happened?”

“On the day Catherine was delivered to my house, before I’d sampled the goods, a man forced his way in and took her. Literally abducted her. One of my footmen tried to stop him and took a bullet in the leg for his pains. By the time I realized what was happening, the man had already taken Catherine past the front threshold. I can only assume that he had lost the private auction and decided to take what he wanted by force. Catherine disappeared after that. I’ve wanted her for eight years.” Latimer gave a low laugh. “And now she’s turned up in your possession. I don’t know that I’m surprised, really. You’ve always been a devious bastard. How did you manage to acquire her?”

Leo was momentarily silent. His chest was filled with searing anguish for Catherine’s sake. Fifteen. Betrayed by those who should have protected her. Sold to a man without morals or mercy. The thought of what Latimer would have done to Catherine made Leo ill. Latimer’s depravities wouldn’t have stopped at mere physical violation—he would have destroyed her soul. No wonder Catherine found it impossible to trust anyone. It was the only rational response to impossible circumstances.

Leveling a cold stare at Latimer, Leo reflected that if he were just a bit less civilized, he would have killed the bastard on the spot. However, he would have to settle for keeping him away from Catherine, and doing whatever was necessary to keep her safe.

“She is owned by no one,” Leo said with care.

“Good. Then I’ll—”

“She is under my protection, however.”

Latimer arched a brow, amused. “What am I to infer from that?”

Leo was deadly serious. “That you are to go nowhere near her. That she’ll never have to endure the sound of your voice or the insult of your presence ever again.”

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“I’m afraid I can’t oblige you.”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to.”

A coarse laugh erupted. “Surely you’re not threatening me.”

Leo smiled coldly. “Much as I always tried to ignore your inebriated ravings, Latimer, a few things did stick in my memory. Some of your confessions of misconduct would make more than a few people unhappy. I know enough of your secrets to land you in Marshalsea prison without so much as a chum ticket. And if that’s not enough, I would be more than willing to resort to bashing your skull in with a blunt object. In fact, I’m becoming quite enthused about the idea.” Seeing the astonishment in the other man’s eyes, Leo smiled without humor. “I see you grasp my sincerity. That’s good. It might save us both some inconvenience.” He paused to give his next statement greater impact. “And now I’m going to instruct my servants to escort you off my estate. You’re not welcome.”

The older man’s face went livid. “You’ll regret having made an enemy of me, Ramsay.”

“Not nearly as much as I’ve regretted having once made a friend of you.”

“What happened to Catherine?” Amelia asked Leo when he returned to the drawing room. “Why did she leave so suddenly?”

“Lord Latimer accosted her,” he said shortly.

Amelia shook her head in bewildered outrage. “That repulsive goat—why would he dare?”

“Because that’s what he does. He’s an affront to polite company and every standard of moral decency. A better question would be why the devil we invited him.”

“We didn’t invite him, we invited his parents. Obviously he came in their stead.” She threw him an accusing glance. “And he’s an old acquaintance of yours.”

“From now on, let’s assume that every old acquaintance of mine is either a lecher or a criminal and should be kept far away from the estate and the family.”

“Did Lord Latimer harm Catherine?” Amelia asked anxiously.

“Not physically. But I want someone to see to her. I expect she’s in her room. Will you go to her, or send Win?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Don’t ask questions. Just make certain she’s all right.”

A half hour later, Win came to Leo with the information that Catherine had declined to say anything other than she wished to retire undisturbed.

It was probably for the best, Leo thought. Although he wanted to go up to her and offer comfort, he would let her sleep.

On the morrow, they would sort everything out.

Leo awakened at the hour of nine and went to Catherine’s door. It was still closed, and there was no sound from within. It took all his self-control to keep from opening the door and waking her. However, she needed to rest … especially in light of what he intended to discuss with her later.

It seemed to Leo as he went downstairs that the entire household, including servants, was practically sleepwalking. The ball hadn’t ended until four in the morning, and even then some of the guests had been reluctant to leave. Sitting in the breakfast room, Leo drank a mug of strong tea and watched as Amelia, Win, and Merripen came in. Cam, always a late riser, was still absent.