A quarter hour passed, and then a half hour. Leo began to wonder if he would ever discover why they had prevailed on him to call.

“Dear me,” the countess eventually exclaimed, “I quite forgot that I had intended to consult with Cook about the evening meal. Pardon, I must go at once.” She stood, and Leo automatically rose to his feet.

“Perhaps I should leave, as well,” he said, grateful for the opportunity to escape.

“Do stay, my lord,” Vanessa said quietly. A look passed between Vanessa and the countess before the latter left the room.

Recognizing the obvious pretext to leave them alone, Leo lowered back into the chair. He raised a brow as he regarded Vanessa. “So there is a point to this.”

“There is a point,” Vanessa confirmed. She was beautiful, her shining dark hair arranged in pinned-up curls, her eyes exotic and striking in her porcelain complexion. “I wish to discuss a highly personal matter with you. I hope I may rely on your discretion.”

“You may.” Leo studied her with a flicker of interest. There was a hint of uncertainty, urgency, beneath her provocative façade.

“I’m not certain how best to begin,” she said.

“Be blunt,” Leo suggested. “Subtleties are usually wasted on me.”

“I would like to put forth a proposition, my lord, that will satisfy our mutual needs.”

“How intriguing. I wasn’t aware that we had mutual needs.”

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“Obviously yours is to marry and have a son quickly, before you die.”

Leo was mildly startled. “I hadn’t planned to expire any time soon.”

“What about the Ramsay curse?”

“I don’t believe in the Ramsay curse.”

“Neither did my father,” she said pointedly.

“Well, then,” Leo said, both annoyed and amused, “in light of my rapidly approaching demise, we shouldn’t waste a moment. Tell me what you want, Miss Darvin.”

“I need to find a husband as quickly as possible, or I will soon find myself in a very unpleasant position.”

Leo watched her alertly, making no response.

“Although we are not well acquainted,” she continued, “I know a great deal about you. Your past exploits are hardly a secret. And I believe all the qualities that would make you an unsuitable husband for anyone else would make you ideal for me. We are very much alike, you see. From all accounts, you are cynical, amoral, and selfish.” A deliberate pause. “So am I. Which is why I would never try to change any of those things about you.”

Fascinating. For a girl no more than twenty, she possessed preternatural self-confidence.

“Whenever you chose to stray,” Vanessa continued, “I wouldn’t complain. I probably wouldn’t even notice, because I would be similarly occupied. It would be a sophisticated marriage. I can give you children to ensure that the Ramsay title and estate will stay in your line of descent. Furthermore, I can—”

“Miss Darvin,” Leo said carefully, “pray don’t continue.” The irony of the situation was hardly lost on him—she was proposing a true marriage of convenience, free from messy desires and feelings. The diametric opposite of the marriage he wanted with Catherine.

Not long ago, that might have appealed to him.

Settling back in his chair, Leo regarded her with detached patience. “I don’t deny the stories of my past sins. But despite all that … or perhaps because of it … the idea of a sophisticated marriage doesn’t appeal to me in the least.”

He saw by the frozen stillness of Vanessa’s face that he had surprised her. She took her time about replying. “Perhaps it should, my lord. A better woman would be disappointed and shamed by you, and come to hate you. Whereas I ”—she touched her chest in a practiced gesture, drawing his attention to her round, perfect bosom—“would never expect anything from you.”

The arrangement Vanessa Darvin proposed was a perfect recipe for aristocratic domesticity. How fantastically bloodless and civilized.

“But I need someone to expect something from me,” he heard himself say.

The truth of that bolted through him like lightning. Had he really just said it? And did he truly mean it?

Yes. Dear God.

When and how had he changed? It had been a mortal struggle to leave behind the excesses of grief and self-loathing. Somewhere along the way he had stopped wanting to die, which was not quite the same thing as wanting to live. But that had been enough for a while.

Until Catherine. She had reawakened him like a cold dash of water in his face. She made him want to be a better man, not just for her, but for himself, as well. He should have known that Catherine would push him over the edge. Good God, how she pushed him. And he loved it. Loved her. His small, bespectacled warrior.

I won’t let you fall, she had said to him, the day he’d been injured at the ruins. I won’t let you turn into a degenerate. She had meant it, and he had believed her, and that had been the turning point.

How deeply he had resisted loving someone like this … and yet it was exhilarating. He felt as if his soul had been set on fire, every part of him burning with impatient joy.

Aware that his color had heightened, Leo took a deep breath and let it out slowly. A smile twitched his lips as he reflected on the peculiar inconvenience of realizing that he was in love with one woman, when he had just been proposed to by another.

“Miss Darvin,” he said gently, “I am honored by your suggestion. But you want the man I was. Not the man I am now.”