“To the Rom,” Merripen said soberly, “a single peacock feather is an evil omen.”

“And she was wearing dozens of them,” Cam added.

They watched Leo walk away with Vanessa Darvin as if he were heading toward a pit filled with vipers.

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Leo escorted Vanessa Darvin to the drawing room, while Countess Ramsay remained near the refreshment tables with Lord and Lady Ulster. After a few minutes of conversation with Vanessa, it was obvious that she was a young woman with adequate intelligence and a highly flirtatious nature. Leo had known and bedded women like Vanessa before. She inspired little interest in him. However, it might benefit the Hathaway family to become acquainted with Vanessa Darvin and her mother, if only to learn their plans.

Chattering lightly, Vanessa confided how dreadfully dull it had been to spend a year in mourning after her father had passed away, and how eager she had been to finally have a season in London the following year. “But how charming this estate is,” she exclaimed. “I remember visiting it once when my father had the title. It was a pile of rubbish, and the gardens were barren. Now it’s a gem.”

“Thanks to Mr. Rohan and Merripen,” Leo said. “The transformation was entirely due to their efforts.”

Vanessa looked puzzled. “Well. One would never have guessed. Their people aren’t usually so industrious.”

“Romas are highly industrious, actually. It’s only that they’re nomadic, which limits their interest in farming.”

“But your brothers-in-law are not nomadic, it seems.”

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“They have each found good reason to stay in Hampshire.”

Vanessa shrugged. “They give the appearance of being gentlemen, which I suppose is all one could ask.”

Leo was annoyed by her disdainful tone. “They’re both related to nobility, as a matter of fact, being only half Romany. Merripen will inherit an Irish earldom someday.”

“I had heard something to that effect. But … Irish nobility,” she said with a little moue of distaste.

“You consider the Irish inferior?” Leo asked idly.

“Don’t you?”

“Yes, I’ve always found it so crass when people refuse to be English.”

Either Vanessa chose to ignore the comment, or it sailed over her head. She exclaimed with pleasure as they approached the drawing room, with its rows of glittering windows, cream-painted interior, and steep tray ceiling. “How lovely. I believe I will enjoy living here.”

“As you remarked earlier,” Leo pointed out, “you may not have the chance. I have a year left to marry and procreate.”

“You have a reputation as an elusive bachelor, which leaves some doubt as to whether you will achieve the former.” A provocative gleam appeared in her dark eyes. “The latter, I’m sure you’re very good at.”

“I would never make that claim,” Leo said blandly.

“You don’t have to, my lord. The claim has often been made on your behalf. Will you deny it?”

It was hardly a question one would have expected from a well-bred miss upon first acquaintance. Leo gathered that he was supposed to be impressed by her audacity. However, after participating in an infinite number of such conversations in London parlors, he no longer found such remarks intriguing.

In London, a little sincerity was far more shocking than audacity.

“I wouldn’t claim to be accomplished in the bedroom,” he said. “Merely competent. And women usually don’t recognize the difference.”

Vanessa giggled. “What makes one accomplished in the bedroom, my lord?”

Leo glanced at her without smiling. “Love, of course. Without it, the entire business is merely a matter of technicalities.”

She looked disconcerted, but the flirtatious mask swiftly reappeared. “Oh, la, love is a passing thing. I may be young, but I’m hardly naïve.”

“So I’ve gathered,” he said. “Would you care to dance, Miss Darvin?”

“That depends, my lord.”

“On what?”

“On whether you’re competent or accomplished at it.”

“Touché,” Leo said, smiling despite himself.

Chapter Fifteen

Upon being told by Amelia of the unanticipated arrival of Countess Ramsay and Vanessa Darvin, Catherine was filled with curiosity.

Followed soon thereafter by gloom.

Standing at the side of the room, she and Beatrix watched as Leo waltzed with Miss Darvin.

They were a striking pair, Leo’s dark handsomeness perfectly balanced by Miss Darvin’s vibrant beauty. Leo was an excellent dancer, if a bit more athletic than graceful as he guided his partner around the room. And the skirts of Miss Darvin’s blue-green gown swirled most becomingly, a fold of her skirts occasionally wrapping against his legs from the motion of the waltz.

Miss Darvin was quite beautiful, with glowing dark eyes and rich sable hair. She murmured something that elicited a grin from Leo. He looked charmed by her. Absolutely charmed.

Catherine had a peculiar feeling in her stomach as she watched them, as if she had just swallowed a handful of tenpenny nails. Beatrix stood beside her and touched her back briefly, as if to offer comfort. Catherine felt a reversal of their usual roles, that instead of being the wise older companion, she was the one in need of reassurance and guidance.

She tried to school her features into blankness. “How attractive Miss Darvin is,” she commented.

“I suppose,” Beatrix said noncommittally.

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