“That does it,” Harry muttered, leaping for his throat.

They crashed to the floor, rolling and grappling. Although Harry managed to slam Leo’s head on the floor, the thick carpet absorbed most of the impact. Harry sought a chokehold, but Leo ducked his chin and wrenched free. They rolled twice, exchanging blows, aiming for the throat, the kidneys, the solar plexus, in the kind of fight that usually took place in East End slum alleys.

“You won’t win this one, Rutledge,” Leo panted as they broke apart and lurched to their feet. “I’m not one of your prick-me-dainty fencing partners.” He dodged a hard right and took a jab of his own. “I’ve fought my way in and out of every gaming hell and tavern in London—” He faked a jab with his left and followed with a swift right hook, making a satisfying impact with Harry’s jaw. “And aside from all that, I live with Merripen, who has a left uppercut like a kick from a mule—”

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“Do you ever stop talking?” Harry threw a counterpunch and stepped back before Leo could retaliate.

“It’s called communication. You ought to try it sometime.” Exasperated, Leo dropped his guard and stood there undefended. “Especially with your sister. Have you ever bothered to listen to her? Damn it, man, she came to London hoping for some kind of brotherly counsel or consolation, and the first thing you do is send her from the room.”

Harry’s fists lowered. He pinned Leo with a damning glare, but when he spoke, his voice was heavy with self-condemnation. “I’ve failed her for years. Do you think I’m unaware of all that I could have done for her but didn’t? I’ll do anything possible to atone. But damn you, Ramsay … the last thing she needed in this situation was for her innocence to be taken when she couldn’t defend herself.”

“It’s exactly what she needed.”

Harry shook his head in disbelief. “Damn you.” He scrubbed a hand through his black hair, and gave a peculiar strangled laugh. “I hate arguing with a Hathaway. You all say something lunatic as if it’s perfectly logical. Is it too early for brandy?”

“Not at all. I’m feeling far too sober for this conversation.”

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Harry went to a sideboard and pulled out two glasses. “While I pour,” he said, “you can explain why being deflowered by you was so bloody beneficial to my sister.”

Shrugging out of his coat, Leo draped it over the back of his chair and sat. “Marks has been isolated and alone for much too long—”

“She hasn’t been alone, she’s been living with the Hathaways.”

“Even so, she’s stayed at the edges of the family with her nose pressed against the window, like some Dickensian orphan. A false name, drab clothes, dyed hair … she’s concealed her identity for so long that she hardly knows who she is. But the real Catherine emerges when she’s with me. We’ve gotten beneath each other’s guards. We speak the same language, if you take my meaning.” Leo paused, staring into the glowing swirl of his brandy. “Marks is a contradictory woman, and yet the more I know her, the more the contradictions make sense. She’s spent too long in the shadows. No matter how she tries to convince herself otherwise, she wants to belong somewhere, with someone. And yes, she wants a man in her bed. Me in particular.” Taking the brandy that Harry handed to him, Leo tossed back a swallow. “She’ll thrive with me. Not because I’m a stellar example of virtuous manhood, nor have I ever claimed to be. But I’m right for her. I’m not cowed by her sharp tongue, and she can’t outmaneuver me. And she knows it.”

Harry sat nearby and drank his own brandy. He watched Leo pensively, on one level trying to assess his sincerity, on another judging his veracity. “What would you get from this arrangement?” he asked quietly. “As I understand, you need to marry and sire a child rather soon. If Cat doesn’t succeeded in bearing a son, the Hathaways will lose Ramsay House.”

“We’ve survived many things far worse than losing a bloody house. I’ll marry Marks and take the risk.”

“Perhaps you’re testing the waters,” Harry said, his face expressionless. “Trying to determine if she’s fertile before you marry her.”

Instantly offended, Leo forced himself to remember that he was dealing with the legitimate concern of a brother for a sister. “I don’t give a damn if she’s fertile or not,” he said evenly. “If it will settle your concerns, we’ll wait however long it will take to make the copyhold clause irrelevant. I want her regardless.”

“And what about what Cat wants?”

“That’s up to her. As for dealing with Latimer—I’ve already made him aware that I have leverage against him. I’ll use it if he starts to make trouble. But the best protection I can offer her is my name.” Finishing his brandy, Leo set the empty snifter aside. “What do you know of this grandmother and aunt?”

“The old crone died not long ago. The aunt, Althea Hutchins, runs the place now. I sent my assistant Valentine to take inventory of the situation, and he returned looking somewhat sickened. Apparently in a bid to revive business, Mrs. Hutchins turned it into a whipping brothel, where any number of depravities are catered to. The unfortunate women who work there are usually too well worn to be employed at other brothels.” Harry finished his brandy. “It seems the aunt is ailing, most likely from some untreated bawdy-house disease.”

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