Catherine Marks was standing there, book in hand, her cheeks pink. “Forgive me,” she said. “I didn’t mean to disturb you. I meant to return a book, but—”
“Come in,” Harry said at once, rising from his chair. “You’re not interrupting anything.”
“I’ll just be a moment.” She hurried to a bookshelf, replaced the volume, and paused to glance at him. Light from the window gleamed on her spectacles, obscuring her eyes.
“Stay in here if you like,” Harry said, feeling unaccountably awkward.
“No, thank you. It’s a lovely day, and I thought I might walk through the gardens, or—” She stopped and shrugged uncomfortably.
God, how ill at ease they were with each other. Harry contemplated her for a moment, wondering what was troubling her. He had never known what to do with her, this unwanted half sister, what place in his life he could find for her. He had never wanted to care for Catherine, and yet she had always tugged at him, worried him, perplexed him.
“May I walk with you?” he asked huskily.
She blinked in surprise. Her answer was long in coming. “If you wish.”
He went out with her to a small hedged garden, with heavy drifts of white and yellow daffodils all around. Squinting against the abundant sunshine, they walked along a graveled path.
Catherine gave him an unfathomable glance, her eyes like opals in the daylight. “I don’t know you at all, Harry.”
“You probably know me as well as anyone,” Harry said. “Except for Poppy, of course.”
“No, I don’t,” she said earnestly. “The way you’ve been this week . . . I would never have expected it of you. This affection you seem to have developed for Poppy—I find it quite astonishing.”
“It’s not an act,” he said.
“I know. I can see that you’re sincere. It’s just that before the wedding, you said it didn’t matter if Poppy’s heart belonged to Mr. Bayning, as long as—”
“As long as I had the rest of her,” Harry said, smiling in self-contempt. “I was an arrogant swine. I’m sorry, Cat.” He paused. “I understand now why you feel so protective of Poppy and Beatrix. Of all of them. They’re the closest thing to a family you’ve ever known.”
An uncomfortable silence passed before Harry brought himself to admit, “Or I.”
They stopped at a bench set alongside the path, and Catherine seated herself. “Will you?” she asked, gesturing to the space beside her.
He obliged, lowering to the bench and leaning forward with his elbows braced on his knees.
They were quiet but oddly companionable, both of them wishing for some kind of affinity, not knowing quite how to achieve it.
Harry decided to start with honesty. Taking a deep breath, he said gruffly, “I’ve never been kind to you, Cat. Especially when you needed it most.”
“I would dispute that,” she said, surprising him. “You rescued me from a very unpleasant situation, and you’ve given me the means to live handsomely without having to find employment. And you never demanded anything in return.”
“I owed that much to you.” He stared at her, taking in the rich golden glitter of her hair, the small oval of her face, the porcelain fineness of her skin. A frown pulled at his brow. Averting his gaze, he reached up to rub the back of his neck. “You look too damned much like our mother.”
“I’m sorry,” Catherine whispered.
“No, don’t be sorry. You’re beautiful, just as she was. More so. But sometimes it’s difficult to see the resemblance, and not remember . . .” He let out a taut sigh. “When I found out about you, I resented you for having had so many more years with her than I’d had. It was only later that I realized I was the fortunate one.”
A bitter smile touched her lips. “I don’t think either of us could be accused of having had an excess of good fortune, Harry.”
He responded with a humorless chuckle.
They continued to sit side by side, still and silent, close but not touching. The two of them had been raised not knowing how to give or receive love. The world had taught them lessons that would have to be unlearned. But sometimes life was unexpectedly generous, Harry mused. Poppy was proof of that.
“The Hathaways were a stroke of luck for me,” Catherine said, as if she had read his thoughts. She removed her spectacles and cleaned them with the edge of her sleeve. “Being with them these past three years . . . it’s given me hope. It has been a time of healing.”
“I’m glad of it,” Harry said gently. “You deserve that, and more.” He paused, searching for words. “Cat, I have something to ask you . . .”
“Poppy wants to know more about my past. What may I tell her, if anything, about the part when I found you?”
Catherine replaced her spectacles and stared into a nearby blaze of daffodils. “Tell her everything,” she said eventually. “She can be trusted with my secrets. And yours.”
Harry nodded, silently amazed by a statement he once could never have imagined her making. “There’s one more thing I want to ask of you. A favor. I understand the reasons we can’t acknowledge each other in public. But in private, from now on, I hope you’ll do me the honor of . . . well, letting me act as your brother.”
She glanced at him with wide eyes, seeming too stunned to reply.