“Sweetheart,” West murmured kindly, “listen to me. There’s no need to worry. You’ll either meet someone new, or you’ll reconsider someone you didn’t appreciate at first. Some men are an acquired taste. Like oysters, or Gorgonzola cheese.”
She let out a shuddering sigh. “Cousin West, if I haven’t married by the time I’m twenty-five … and you’re still a bachelor … would you be my oyster?”
West looked at her blankly.
“Let’s agree to marry each other someday,” she continued, “if no one else wants us. I would be a good wife. All I’ve ever dreamed of is having my own little family, and a happy home where everyone feels safe and welcome. You know I never nag or slam doors or sulk in corners. I just need someone to take care of. I want to matter to someone. Before you refuse—”
“Lady Cassandra Ravenel,” West interrupted, “that is the most idiotic idea anyone’s come up with since Napoleon decided to invade Russia.”
Her gaze turned reproachful. “Why?”
“Among a dizzying array of reasons, you’re too young for me.”
“You’re no older than Lord St. Vincent, and he just married my twin.”
“I’m older than him on the inside, by decades. My soul is a raisin. Take my word for it, you don’t want to be my wife.”
“It would be better than being lonely.”
“What rubbish. ‘Alone’ and ‘lonely’ are entirely different things.” West reached out to smooth back a dangling golden curl that had stuck against a drying tear track on her cheek. “Now, go bathe your face in cool water, and—”
“I’ll be your oyster,” Tom broke in. He stood from the chair and approached the pair, who stared at him in openmouthed astonishment.
Tom was more than a little surprised himself. If there was anything he was good at, it was negotiating business deals, and this was not the way to start off. In just a few words, he’d managed to put himself in the weakest possible position.
But he wanted her so badly, he couldn’t help himself.
The closer he drew to her, the harder it became to think straight. His heart worked in a fast and broken rhythm he could feel against his ribs.
Cassandra moved close to West as if for protection, and stared at him as if he were a lunatic. Tom could hardly blame her. In fact, he already regretted this entire approach, but it was too late to hold back now.
West was scowling. “Severin, what the devil are you doing in here?”
“I was resting in the chair. After you started talking, I couldn’t find a good moment to interrupt.” Tom couldn’t take his gaze from Cassandra. Her wide, wondering eyes were like soft blue midnight, star-glittered with forgotten tears. The curves of her body looked firm and sweet, no hard angles or straight lines anywhere … nothing but inviting, sensual softness. If she were his … he might finally have the sense of ease other men had. No more spending every minute of the day striving and hungering and never feeling sated.
“I’ll marry you,” Tom told her. “Any time. Any terms.”
West gently nudged Cassandra toward the door. “Go, darling, while I talk with the insane man.”
She gave her cousin a flustered nod and obeyed.
After she’d crossed the threshold, Tom said urgently, without thinking, “My lady?”
Slowly she reappeared, peeking at him from behind the doorjamb.
Tom wasn’t sure what to say, only that he couldn’t let her leave thinking she was anything less than perfect, exactly as she was.
“You’re not too plump,” he said gruffly. “The more of you there is in the world, the better.”
As far as compliments went, it wasn’t exactly eloquent, or even appropriate. But amusement sparkled in the one blue eye that was visible before Cassandra vanished.
Every muscle in his body tensed with the instinct to follow her like a hound on the scent.
West turned to face Tom, his expression puzzled and annoyed.
Before his friend could say a word, Tom asked urgently, “Can I have her?”
“I have to have her, let me have her—”
Tom turned businesslike. “You want her for yourself. Perfectly understandable. We’ll negotiate.”
“You just overheard me refusing to marry her,” West pointed out irritably.
Which Tom hadn’t believed for a moment. How could West, or any man with working parts, not want her with this all-consuming intensity? “Obviously a strategy to reel her in later,” he said. “But I’ll give you a quarter of a railway company for her. Also shares in an excavation company. I’ll throw in some hard cash. Name the amount.”
“Are you mad? Lady Cassandra isn’t a possession I can hand over like an umbrella. In fact, I wouldn’t even give you an umbrella.”
“You could talk her into it. It’s obvious she trusts you.”
“And you think I would use that against her?”
Tom was perplexed and impatient. “What’s the point of having someone’s trust if you won’t use it against them?”
“Lady Cassandra is never going to marry you, Severin,” West said in exasperation.
“But she’s what I’ve always wanted.”
“How do you know? So far all you’ve seen is a pretty young woman with blond hair and blue eyes. Does it occur to you to wonder what’s on the inside?”
“No. I don’t care. She can be whatever she wants on the inside, as long as she lets me have the outside.” As Tom saw West’s expression, he said with a touch of defensiveness, “You know I’ve never been one of those sentimental fellows.”
“You mean the ones with actual human emotions?” West asked acidly.
“I have emotions.” Tom paused. “When I want to.”
“I’m having an emotion right now. And before it obliges me to wedge my boot up your arse, I’m going to put some distance between us.” West skewered him with a lethal glance. “Stay away from her, Tom. Find some other innocent girl to corrupt. I already have enough excuses to murder you as it is.”
Tom’s brows lifted. “Are you still sour about that contract negotiation?” he asked with a touch of surprise.
“I will always be sour about that,” West informed him. “You tried to cheat us out of the mineral rights to our own estate, when you knew we were at the verge of bankruptcy.”
“That was business,” Tom protested.
“What about friendship?”
“Friendship and business are two separate things.”
“Are you trying to claim you wouldn’t mind if a friend tried to fleece you, especially if you wanted the money?”
“I always want the money. That’s why I have so much of it. And no, I wouldn’t mind if a friend tried to fleece me; I would respect the effort.”
“You probably would.” West sounded far from admiring. “You may be a soulless bastard with the mindless appetite of a bull shark, but you’ve always been honest.”
“You’ve always been fair. That’s why I’m asking you to tell Lady Cassandra about my good qualities as well as the bad ones.”