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“Since you’re not planning to change your life, I suppose you’ll keep your mistress?” Vander dropped back into his chair, taking care not to spill his brandy.

“I pensioned her off the day after I met Laetitia.”

“Then I’ll point out the obvious. You are signing up to sleep with no woman other than Laetitia Rainsford for the rest of your bleeding life.”

He shrugged. “She will give me children. And I have no doubt she will be faithful, so I’ll pay her the same respect.”

“Loyalty is one of your few virtues,” Vander acknowledged. “The problem with you,” he added, staring contemplatively into his brandy, “is your infernal childhood.”

Thorn couldn’t argue with that. Spending his boyhood as a penniless mudlark—diving into the Thames to search for anything of value in the muck—had shaped him. He had learned the hard way that danger lurked where you couldn’t see it.

“You don’t trust anyone,” Vander continued, waxing philosophical. “Your father should have kept a better eye on you. I’ll be damned if I misplace any of my children, even if I produce a bastard, which I won’t.”

“My childhood made me what I am. I wouldn’t trade it to be the pampered son of a duke.”

Vander shot him a sardonic look. Thorn was the only one who knew what horrors had lurked inside the Duke of Pindar’s country seat.

“I trust my father, Eleanor, my siblings,” Thorn stated. “And you. That’s good enough.”

Frankly, he didn’t waste much time thinking about trusting women. And he found it rare that he respected them. His life revolved around his work, and most gentlewomen didn’t seem to do anything except their part in bed, though he generally did most of the work there too. That was the nature of it. He wasn’t a man to give a woman her way between the sheets.

“I trust you,” Vander replied. He added no other names. Not that Thorn expected him to, because he knew there were no other names to add. Vander’s face had darkened, and as Thorn saw it, his friend’s darkness was his own business.

“That’s why I want a marriage like your father’s,” Vander continued, staring at the fire through his empty glass. “There have to be more people in the world I can trust than a muscle-bound, sweaty bastard like yourself.”

Back when they’d been fourteen, that weak jest would have been an invitation, and the two of them would have pummeled each other until half the furniture in the room had been broken . . . and they’d come out the other side panting and happy.

What’s more, that remark, or another like it, would surely have been made on this very day of the year, because it was the anniversary of Vander’s mother’s death, which he generally spent skating on the edge of violence. Consequently, every year on this day Thorn ensured he was at Vander’s side.

Thorn got to his feet. “I’m sick of sitting around with a maudlin romantic, talking about women. Foil or épée?”

Vander rose with no sign that three glasses of brandy had impaired him. Probably they hadn’t; he seemed to have been endowed with the ability to burn off alcohol within minutes.

Predictably, Vander chose the heavier blade, the épée. Thorn was the better fencer; Vander had the habit of losing his temper and slashing instead of strategizing.

Once in Thorn’s ballroom, they stripped down to shirts and breeches and began circling each other, blades poised.

But even as he calculated every shift in Vander’s weight, Thorn kept thinking about marriage. Laetitia wasn’t bright, it was true, but frankly, he believed that to be a decided advantage in a wife. His mother had been that rare thing, a strong-minded woman with a vocation, and her art had mattered more to her than her son.

He didn’t have any interest in a woman with a profession. He wanted a woman who would never dream of leaving her children—for any reason. Laetitia adored children, and she clearly had no larger aspirations than motherhood. He had decided five minutes after meeting her that she would be his bride, though he hadn’t yet informed her of the fact.

Her approval was unnecessary, really, since their marriage was a matter of negotiation between himself and her parents. After meeting with Lord Rainsford, he understood that he would pay dearly for Laetitia’s beauty. But more importantly, he would pay the highest price for her birth.

The only remaining obstacle was Lady Rainsford; her parents had made it clear that her approval was necessary.

Vander was fighting like a madman, to the point where he had twice nearly broken through Thorn’s guard. His chest was heaving and he was bathed in sweat. But he looked better than he had earlier: less fraught, less furious . . . less grief-stricken.

Good.

Time to go in for the kill. In a coordinated series of strokes, Thorn danced around the edge of Vander’s blade, sliced his right arm around and under, feigned an attack, whirled, switched hands, came at him with the left.

Touché.

Vander’s response to defeat was a stream of oaths that would have made a sailor blanch. Thorn bent over to catch his breath, watching drops of sweat fall to the floor. He couldn’t best Vander in the boxing ring, but he could damn well wipe the floor with him when they held swords. Even better, the air of madness that hung about his friend every year on the anniversary of his mother’s death had evaporated.

Thorn pulled off his shirt and used it to mop his chest and face.

“Do you think that Laetitia will like you?” Vander asked.

“ ‘Like me?’ What do you mean?”

“The way you look. Does she seem attracted to you?”

Thorn glanced down at himself. Long bands of muscle covered his body, forming ridges over his taut abdomen. He kept his body in fighting shape, and no woman had yet expressed a complaint. “Are you talking about the scars?” Like every mudlark who survived into adulthood, he was covered with them.

“You never go into society, so you wouldn’t know, but Laetitia’s just spent the season dancing with a crowd of wand-thin mollies with no need to shave. We’re too big, and we’d both have a beard within the day if we allowed it.”

“Those men were all at school with us,” Thorn said, shrugging. “You’re taking marriage too seriously. It’s a transaction like any other. I’m giving her a country house; that will make up for my brute proportions.”

“Damn,” Vander said, pausing in the middle of rubbing sweat from his hair. “You really mean it, don’t you? I can’t see you as a rural squire.”

Neither could Thorn, but as he understood it, children required fresh air and open spaces. His new estate was close to London, and he could easily visit.

“What will you do with yourself there?” Vander gave a bark of laughter. “Go fishing? I can see you fashioning a new rod and selling the design for a hundred pounds, but reeling in a trout? No.”

Thorn had just acquired a rubber factory that was losing money fast. For a moment, he imagined a rubber fishing rod—he had to design something profitable that the factory could make—but then dismissed it. “I won’t be there often,” he said, tossing his shirt to the side. “I’ll leave the trout for idiots who fancy shriveling their balls in rushing water.”

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