“This way.” The butler strode down the corridor at a pace Theo very much appreciated. Brisk. Normal.
As if Theo was not a bandaged husk crumpled at all angles inside a wheeled chair, but a capable and healthy man.
The guest chamber was large and comfortably equipped, boasting several windows with a view of the snow-covered lane leading up to the picturesque castle perched atop the mountain. This would do.
As soon as the rooms had been sufficiently aired, Theo would seal the curtains at once. Until he was completely healed, he could not be recognized. Not like this.
That was why he was so far from home. Why he had avoided inns and other such public meeting-houses. As far as the beau monde knew, he was still at war, leading his troops, doing his part.
Movement outside the open windows caused Theo to drag his gaze from the dancing orange flames out to the gently falling snow.
A young lady walked alone down the winding narrow path from the castle, accompanied only by a coal black cat with a tall plume of a tail, his paws obscured by snow.
Theo’s curiosity turned to growing disbelief as he watched the cat accompany its mistress like a dog. The beast hurried to her side after falling behind to sniff something. Glanced over his shoulder to ensure her impending arrival if it happened to prance too far ahead. Paused when she paused, continued when she continued. Theo watched, transfixed.
The closer the pair drew to the cottage, the more details he could pick out.
The woman’s hair was the red-brown of autumn leaves. Her lips and cheeks were a flushed, becoming pink. Her coat was the same dark green as the snow-speckled forest behind her, her boots as dark black as the cat’s fur.
She was too old to be a debutante, too young to be on the shelf. Her attire appeared warm, serviceable, and well-tailored, but without any particular pretension toward current fashions.
In other words, the mystery lady was of indeterminate age, indeterminate background, indeterminate everything.
Theo could not help but be intrigued.
Almost without fail, every person he came in contact with all but broadcast who and what they were. Not this woman. Even her cat made no bloody sense.
As he watched, she spied something in the trees just across the street from his window.
Without bothering to so much as glance over her shoulder to make eye contact with her pet, the woman held up a gloved palm and murmured, “Heel!” as if the ball of black fluff at her side actually was a dog.
Despite the pain, Theo could not help but indulge a small quirk of his lips at such folly. Obviously, a cat would never obey a command like—
His jaw fell open as the beast practically rolled its feline eyes in reluctant submission and sat on its haunches. How on earth…?
The woman paid no attention to her improbably obedient pet, as though she took it as a matter of course that all cats should respond without question to their masters’ commands.
Instead, she scrambled over the hill of snow lining the road. With a tender look upon her face, she, too, dropped to her haunches and disappeared completely out of sight.
Rapt, Theo rolled his chair closer to the window.
Moments later, the woman rose to her feet with aching slowness, her leather gloves cupped together to protect a tiny puff of feathers. A baby bird. She tilted her head back and craned her face up toward the branches overhead. Theo’s heart skipped in trepidation.
She would not attempt to climb a tree. She would not attempt to climb a tree.
She was absolutely going to climb the tree.