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Miss Reeve looked at him, that chin of hers tilted up. “Do you know of the proposal your brother has made to me, Mr. Cahill?”
“Do you approve?”
Ash shrugged ruefully. “I suppose I always thought he’d marry for love, but he needs the money and I don’t have it.” He smiled at her. “He likes you, though. He could do worse. Maybe in time—”
She shook her head. Ash’s heart sank. “I like your brother too. But…” She squared her shoulders, her chin going up even higher. He could see her pulse hammering just under the black ribbon of her bonnet. “I like you better. If you’ve any inclination, I’d rather take the same offer from you.”
Ash’s heart stopped, or maybe his ears. He couldn’t hear a sound from the street. “What?” What was common. He should have said I beg your pardon. He should have said something cleverer than either.
“I know it’s very forward of me.” Her voice trembled but her gaze didn’t falter. She had bottom. “But we’re past the proprieties, and marrying a man for convenience’s sake while nursing a tendre for his brother is something out of a tired French farce.”
“A tendre?” Trust her to use a word he didn’t know. But her meaning was all too clear. “For me? But—Rafe is—”
The corner of her full mouth curved up softly. Tenderly, even. Maybe that was what tendre meant, tenderness. “Mr. Ralph is very handsome. But chacun à son goût, as they say.”
He looked at her blankly.
The enormity, the implausibility of this reversal—had he done something, said something—
Of course he had. He liked her. She’d attracted him from the first moment, and somehow he’d let her see it.
Could he find another life for Rafe this good again? Would Rafe be willing to wait while he tried? He’d been practicing his whole life for this swindle, this moment, to give Rafe this. He couldn’t—wouldn’t—fail like some amateur, like a flat. But he couldn’t speak.
“We have a—a connection, do we not?” she tried again, her words almost echoing in the silence. Those big brown eyes wobbled back and forth a little over his face, where she apparently saw something she wanted to marry.
I have a connection with twenty people a day, he wanted to shout at her. What does a connection matter?
She stepped forward. She didn’t want him to see how nervous she was, but it showed in her silent staccato breaths. The fine hairs on the fur trim of her pelisse trembled as her breasts went up and down. She stood there for a second, waiting for him to say something, and then she sighed and undid that black velvet ribbon under her chin.
He should leave. If she was ready to take the deal from him, then once he’d turned her down she’d probably take it from Rafe.
But she’d only do that if he could get out of this without embarrassing her. He had to turn her up so sweet she wouldn’t mind seeing him again. He would be her brother-in-law, and she didn’t know that soon he’d be out of the picture for good.
She took off her bonnet.
He tried to not want her. If he could just find a part of himself that didn’t want her, he’d know what to say and how to make it sound natural.
He couldn’t even find a part of himself that could breathe.