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Thorn raised an eyebrow. Laetitia was widely viewed as the most exquisite woman on the marriage mart. Her charms were obvious. “You really can’t guess?”

“Oh, I know she’s beautiful. And you’d be stealing her from any number of young bucks who write sonnets to her nose. But she’s not right for you.”

“How can you know that?” Thorn was genuinely curious. Vander didn’t look like a future duke—his hair was shaggy, and he had the jaw of a prizefighter, not a nobleman—and he didn’t act like one either. He never went to balls, so how in the hell would he have met a virtuous young lady like Miss Laetitia Rainsford?

“I was seated beside her at a dinner party given by my uncle. She certainly is pretty enough. But as your wife?”

“I’ve made up my mind. She’s the one.” Thorn took a drink, returning his brandy glass to precisely the same spot on the side table. “She is beautiful, well born, and well bred. What more could I want?”

“A brain,” Vander stated, his eyes not leaving Thorn’s face.

“I don’t look for intelligence in bed,” Thorn said dryly. In his estimation, Laetitia had all the requisite qualities for bedding and mothering, even if a high degree of intelligence didn’t seem to be one of them. “I believe one of the reasons that my factories thrive is that I suit talent to position. In fact, I see no meaningful difference between the two.”

Vander snorted. “You think I’m harsh? You will have to live with the woman!”

“That’s true, but I also live with my butler,” Thorn pointed out. “What’s the difference, really, besides the fact I don’t have to share a bed with Iffley? Laetitia will be the mother of my children, and it is my distinct impression that she is an excellent nurturer. In fact, I met her in the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens, where she was watching boys sail toy boats.”

His intended probably wouldn’t appreciate the comparison, but Thorn had the notion that she was like a rescued hound, one that would adoringly follow her new master in return for some kindness. That was absurd, given that she was as beautiful as a wild rose, with hair like a Botticelli angel. By all rights, she should be arrogantly aware of her dominion over men. But instead she had a desperate look about her eyes, as if she needed saving.

It was a fair trade, in his estimation. Her beauty in return for his protection.

“You plan to drop your wife at this new estate of yours with a brood of children?”

“I see no reason to live at Starberry Court with her.” His own father had taught him little more than how to fence. Thorn intended to be that type of father, and he needn’t be in residence to do it.

“A mother does more than nurture her family,” Vander objected. “I hear scientists have estimated that half of one’s intellect comes from each parent.”

Thorn just looked at him. His children would be his children, just as his father’s were his father’s. He and the Duke of Villiers were carved from the same block of marble. It wasn’t just the white streak in his hair that had appeared in his and his father’s hair after each of them had turned nineteen. It was the set of his jaw, the way Villiers calculated outcomes, even the way he breathed air.

If one wanted more proof, it could be had in the fact that the duke had spawned children with five different mothers, and each of those children was—in his or her own way—a copy of their father. “Of course, I hope that they look like their mother,” he added, with a wry look.

“Bloody hell,” Vander said, disgusted. “I suppose you’ll raise the poor babes as a pack of wolves.”

Thorn grinned at that. “You’d better find someone to marry. You don’t want your wolves to be puny in comparison to mine.”

“I haven’t met the right woman yet.” Vander took a gulp of brandy, slumping lower in his chair. Thorn never sprawled. Sprawling would put him at a disadvantage; he would lose critical seconds before he could dodge a blow and launch an attack.

“Why don’t you ask Eleanor to find you someone suitable?” Thorn asked. His stepmother, the Duchess of Villiers, knew everyone in society worth knowing. Moreover, she was brilliantly strategic and would enjoy determining the future of the duchy of Pindar.

But Vander shook his head. “I want what your father has.”

“What’s that?”

“You know what.”

“You want Eleanor?” Thorn was, frankly, astonished. His stepmother was beautiful, intelligent, witty . . . and she was also deeply in love with his father. Eleanor wasn’t interested in younger men, nor indeed in any man other than her husband.

He gave Vander the kind of look he reserved for pickpockets just before he knocked them off their feet. “You keep your hands off my stepmother. I had no idea that you had propensities of that nature.”

“You should see your face!” Vander was positively howling with laughter. “Your stepmother is a very nice woman,” he said finally, more or less recovering himself. “But I don’t want her, you idiot. I want the type of marriage those two have. I want what Villiers has.” He took another slug. “I’ll be damned if I’ll settle for anything less.”

“I don’t consider the marriage I’m contemplating to be lesser,” Thorn objected. “Just different. My father’s life revolves around Eleanor, and hers around him. I can’t see either of us altering our habits for a woman. What about all those horses you’re training, and the fact you’re constantly off to one steeplechase or another? I have no problem imagining you with a wife—but one who is the center of your life? No.”

“I would make time,” Vander stated.

“Why?”

“You really have no idea, do you?”

“What I know is that Laetitia is remarkably beautiful and she’s a lady, which will protect my children from being shunned as a result of my birth. Part of the reason I treasure my stepmother is that she’s unlike any other woman I’ve met. Quite frankly, I’ve come to believe another such woman doesn’t exist.”

“She has to, Thorn.” Vander came to his feet but didn’t walk away, just stood, staring down at Thorn. “I want to love a woman the way your father loves his wife. I don’t care if she looks like an apple seller. I want to feel passion for the woman I marry. It doesn’t seem too much to ask.”

“My father almost married a woman who belonged in Bedlam,” Thorn said, leaning back so he could see Vander’s face. “It was pure accident that paired him with Eleanor. Are you hoping that the perfect woman will simply wander in your door?”

“If she doesn’t, then I’d rather not bother,” Vander said flatly. He moved to the decanter and refilled his glass. “If I’m to change my life to suit a woman, she’d damned well better be worth my trouble.”

He had a point there. Thorn was fairly sure marriage would be a bother. In order to woo Laetitia, he had been obliged to buy a country estate, although he was perfectly comfortable living in London. What’s more, he was taking on a wife when he already had twenty-three servants, along with men working in factories, solicitors’ offices, and the rest.

But he wanted children, and for that he needed a wife. He liked children. Children, whether boys or girls, were curious. They liked to ask questions; they wanted to understand how things worked.

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