The bedclothes rustled near her feet, and Dodger streaked out with a furious chatter. With quicksilver speed he attacked William’s arm and hand, inflicting a series of deep, gouging bites. Catherine had never seen the little animal behave in such a manner. William grunted in surprise and flung out his arm with a low curse. The ferret went flying, slamming hard against the wall and falling limply to the floor.

Catherine moaned behind the gag, her eyes burning with acid tears.

Breathing heavily, William examined his bleeding hand, found a cloth at the washstand to wrap around it, and returned to Catherine. The laundry bag was pulled higher and higher until it went over her head.

She understood that Althea didn’t really want to see her. Althea wanted to destroy her. Perhaps William didn’t know. Or perhaps he thought it was kinder to lie. It didn’t matter. She felt nothing, no fear, no anguish, although tears leaked steadily from the outward corners of her eyes. What a terrible fate to leave the world feeling nothing at all. She was nothing more than a tangle of limbs in a sack, a headless doll, all memories receding, all sensation falling away.

A few thoughts needled through the blanket of nothingness, pinpricks of light in the dark.

Leo would never know that she had loved him.

She thought of his eyes, all those colors of blue. Her mind was filled with a constellation of high summer, stars in a lion’s shape. The brightest star marks his heart.

He would grieve. If only she could spare him that.

Oh, what they could have had. A life together, such a simple thing. To watch that handsome face weather with age. She had to admit now that she had never been happier than in the moments with him.

Her heart beat faintly beneath her ribs. It was heavy, aching with contained feeling, a hard knot within the numbness.

I didn’t want to need you, Leo, I fought so hard to stay standing at the edge of my own life … when I should have had the courage to walk into yours.

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Chapter Twenty-nine

Late in the morning Leo returned from a visit with his old mentor, Rowland Temple. The architect, now a professor at University College, had recently been awarded the Royal Gold Medal for his work in advancing the academic study of architecture. Leo had been amused but hardly surprised to discover that Temple was as imperious and irascible as ever. The old man viewed the aristocracy as a source of patronage to keep him financially solvent, but he had contempt for their traditional and unimaginative sense of style.

“You’re not one of those parasitical dunderheads,” Temple had told him emphatically, which Leo gathered had been a compliment. And later, “My influence on you cannot be eradicated, can it?” And of course Leo had assured him that it could not, that he remembered and valued everything he had learned from Temple. He hadn’t dared to mention the far greater influence of the elderly professor in Provence.

“Architecture is how we reconcile to the difficulties of life,” Joseph had once told Leo at his atelier. The old professor had been repotting some herbs at a long wooden table, while Leo tried to help. “Non, don’t touch these, mon fils, you pack the roots too tightly, they need more air than you allow them.” He took a pot away from Leo and resumed the lecture. “To be an architect, you have to accept the environment around you, no matter what its conditions. Then, in full awareness, you take your ideals and form them into structure.”

“Can I do it without ideals?” Leo had asked, only half joking. “I’ve learned I can’t live up to them.”

Professor Joseph had smiled at him. “Neither can you reach the stars. But you still need their light. You need them to navigate, n’est-ce pas?”

Take your ideals and form them into structure. Only in that way could a good house, a good building, be designed.

Or a good life.

And Leo had finally found the cornerstone, the essential piece to build the rest on.

A very stubborn cornerstone.

His lips curved as he considered what to do with Catherine that day, how to woo her, or annoy her, since she seemed to enjoy both equally. Perhaps he would start a small argument and kiss her into capitulation. Perhaps he would propose to her again, if he could catch her in a moment of weakness.

Heading to the Rutledge apartments, Leo entered after a careless knock, and found Poppy rushing to the entrance foyer.

“Have you—” she started, then broke off as she saw him. “Leo. I wondered when you’d get back. I didn’t know where you were, or I would have sent for you—”

“What is it, sis?” he asked gently, understanding at once that something was very wrong.

Poppy looked wretched, her eyes large in her white face. “Catherine didn’t come up for breakfast this morning. I assumed that she wanted to sleep late. Sometimes her nightmares—”

“Yes, I know.” Leo gripped her cold hands, staring at her alertly. “Out with it, Poppy.”

“An hour ago I send a housemaid to Catherine’s room, to see if she needed something. She wasn’t there, and these were on the table by the bed.” Reaching out with a trembling hand, she gave him the new silver spectacles. “And … there was blood on the bed.”

It took Leo a moment to contain the rush of panic. He felt it as instant stinging from head to toe, and a heart-thundering blast of energy. A dizzying urge to kill.

“The hotel is being searched,” he heard Poppy say over the roar in his ears, “and Harry and Mr. Valentine are talking to the floor stewards.”

“Latimer has her,” Leo said thickly. “He sent someone for her. I’ll rip the filthy whoreson’s guts out and hang him with them—”