"Won't they find it strange if I'm plastered to your side the whole time?"
His mouth tugged to one side. "Believe me. None of my solicitors will be surprised to find a beautiful woman plastered to my side. It will only bolster the impression that I'm my old self."
His reputation wasn't the source of her concern. She strongly doubted his solicitors were used to seeing him with women like her.
"Wait." Izzy held him back.
"What is it?"
"I . . . I have to tell you something."
"Hm. Right. That would be lovely, but perhaps it can wait until after this crucial meeting we've been preparing for all week?"
"It can't wait," she said, pulling on his sleeve. "There's something you need to know. Urgently."
Now that she had his attention, she almost lost her nerve. She forced herself to blurt it out. "I'm not beautiful. At all."
His brow furrowed, and lips pursed as if he would ask a question, but the question seemed to just . . . get stuck there.
"I should have told you ages ago. You can't know how it's been weighing on me. It's just . . . No one's ever called me beautiful. No one's ever made me feel beautiful. And I couldn't resist enjoying it, even though it was all a misunderstanding. But you need to know it now. If we go into that room together, me draped on your arm . . . There will be no clearer evidence that you've gone blind. They won't know what in the world you're doing with me."
"Izzy." His hand swept up her arm.
She pulled away. "I'm not fishing for compliments. Truly. It's important that you believe and understand this. I'm not beautiful, Ransom. Not pretty. Not comely. Not even passably fair. I'm exceedingly plain. I always have been. No man has ever paid me the slightest attention."
"All right, then. So you're not beautiful."
"Of all your layers and revelations . . ." His hands settled on her shoulders. "This is the deepest secret you've been keeping from me."
"Yes." She tried to reach for him.
His grip firmed, forbidding her to move. "Don't."
As he backed her up against the wall, words just kept spilling out of her. Useless, foolish words.
"It seemed harmless enough at the start. I never dreamed it would cause any trouble, and I told myself there wasn't any reason you needed to know the truth. Except now . . . now there are other people here. And you want to pass me off as your lover, and-"
"I'm not passing you off," he said. "You are my lover."
She pressed her hands to her face. Curse her ridiculous vanity. Now his whole future was at risk.
He said, "I can't believe this is happening. This . . . this . . . is your great, shameful confession. You tell me you're not beautiful." He laughed. "It's just absurd."
"Yes. That's nothing. Do you want to hear a truly ugly secret, Izzy? Here's mine. I killed my mother."
Ransom could feel her recoil at his words, palpably shocked.
He didn't blame her. They were ugly words. Never, ever pleasant to hear. They'd taken a toll on him, too.
"My mother labored for thirty-odd hours to bring me into the world, and died less than one hour afterward," he said. "I killed her. That's precisely what my father told me, in those exact words, from the time I was old enough to understand them."
The memories were still so clear. Every time he'd cried, every time he'd shivered, every time he'd stumbled and wanted a bit of cosseting. His father would haul him by the collar, heels dragging along the marble floors, and push him to the floor before the floor-length portrait of his mother.
Stop that sniveling, boy. She can't wipe your tears now, can she? You killed her.
God, she was beautiful in that portrait. Golden hair, blue eyes, pale blue gown. An angel. He used to pray to her. Little blasphemous petitions for miracles, forgiveness, playthings . . . any signs that she could hear.
But she didn't hear. She was gone.
He'd never prayed to anything since.
"All the servants," he said, "nursemaids, housekeeper, tutors . . . they were sternly instructed to show me no affection. No hugs, no kisses, no nurturing or comfort. Because those were things my mother would have given me, and I didn't deserve them. He blamed me for her death."
He felt the breath sigh out of her. "Ransom, that's just terrible."
"It is," he agreed.
"It was so wrong of him to treat you that way."
"It was. He was a cruel, disgusting bastard. Let's just say, there weren't many bedtime stories."
"I . . . It's meaningless to say it, but I'm so very sorry."
He pressed his brow to hers. "It's not meaningless at all. It means everything. And if later, you want to take me to bed and stroke my hair for days, I'll take it gladly." He pulled back, putting distance between them. "But that's later. Right now, we're discussing you. Not-beautiful you.
"I know women, Izzy. I've known far too many women." He'd spent years searching for that physical comfort he'd been denied, always shying away from any deeper connection. "And I've known, ever since that first afternoon, that you were unlike anyone who'd come before. I'm glad of it. And if men never paid you attention, I'm glad of that, too, selfish cad that I am. Otherwise, you'd be with some other man instead of here with me.
"But no matter how tightly I hold you, no matter how deeply I sink inside you-I've felt there's always some small part of you I can't reach. Something you've been holding back. Your heart, I assumed. Oh, I wanted it. I want all of you. But I couldn't bring myself to ask for something I so clearly didn't deserve."
He felt her draw breath to object, but he cut her off before she could try.
"And it's nothing to do with my birth or my childhood. I'm old enough now to recognize my father's treatment for the senseless cruelty it was. But it's everything since. You think a few features scattered on your face make you plain? I am ugly to the core. All England knows it. And after reading through my papers, you must know it. You sifted through a mountain of my misdeeds. Of course you'd build a wall around your heart. You're a clever girl. How could you love this? How could anyone?"
"Ransom." Her voice wavered.
"And now I learn that this . . . this . . . is what you've been guarding. This is the reason for that reluctance. You don't feel pretty enough. For a blind man. Christ, Izzy. And I thought I was shallow."
The words came out more harshly than he intended. So he followed them with kisses. Tender, soothing kisses to her cheek, her neck, the pale, arousing curve of her shoulder . . .
Bless this woman and her silly, all-too-human vanity. He might never know how to be the man she deserved, but this?
This, he knew how to remedy.
"Izzy," he moaned, pressing his body to hers, "you make me wild with wanting you. You can't imagine." He started pulling up her skirts.
She gasped. "What are you doing?"
"Just what it seems like."
"We can't. The solicitors. They're just downstairs, waiting."
"This is more important."
"Tupping me in the corridor is more important than saving your title?"
He held very still. Then he kissed her lips. "Yes."
He said the word simply, solemnly. Because he meant it, with everything he had left to him. Body and soul. The solicitors and dukedom could go hang. There was nothing worth defending in his life if he couldn't make her see this.
"I can't judge how beauty looks anymore," he said. "But I know the sound of it. It sounds like a flowing river of wild, sweet honey. Beauty smells like rosemary, and it tastes of nectar. Beauty sneezes like a flea."
She smiled. That beautiful smile. How could she ever doubt her effect on him?
"This is how plain you are." He caressed her breast with one hand, while with the other he undid the closures of his breeches placket. "This is how unattractive I find you."
There wasn't time for foreplay or finesse. Only joining.
He fought his way through the petticoats, found her to be every bit as ready as he was-and put both hands on her backside, lifting her off the ground and against the wall. She clung tight to his neck, wrapping her legs about his waist.
And then he thrust.
"I love you."
Saying those words-the words he'd been denied so long, until he denied that they meant anything-damn, it felt good. And saying the words while sliding deep inside her? It felt amazing.
"I love you, Izzy." He thrust deep and true, sliding further home with every dig of his hips. "I love you. You. Beautiful . . . tempting . . . clever . . . lovely . . . you."
He paused inside her, sheathed to the hilt. Holding her pinned to the wall, the both of them fighting for breath. Her thighs quivered against his. There wasn't any way to get closer. He'd pushed into her just as far as he possibly could, thrust as deeply as he could ever reach.
But was it enough? Could he manage to touch her heart?
He had to know.
He closed his eyes and pressed his brow to her sweet, powdered skin. That old, insidious voice thundered in his blood. You don't deserve this. You don't deserve her.
But he had to ask anyway.
He spoke the words that were most difficult of all.
The words were a hoarse, faint whisper. But Izzy knew how much they'd cost him.
"I do." She hugged his neck tight, lest she be swept away by this flood of tender emotion. She kissed his brow, his cheek. "Oh, Ransom. I love you. I do."
On a shaky gasp, he pulled almost all the way out, then thrust home once more. "Again."
"I love you. I love you."
She could have said it a hundred times. She could have held him deep inside her for just as long as he could wish. But they didn't have that kind of time. He worked hard and fast, bringing them both to a stunning, silent crisis. She sank her teeth into her wrist to keep from crying out.
Then he withdrew from her body, setting her feet back down on the floor. He held her for a few moments longer. Just breathing.
"I needed that," he said. "You don't know how much."
She smiled. "I think we both did."
She lowered her skirts and smoothed out the worst of the wrinkles while he refastened the buttons of his breeches.
"Izzy, here is what I can say with confidence, as a man who would know." He straightened his waistcoat with a tug, then each sleeve in turn. "You're a wildly attractive, palpably sensual woman. Perhaps suitors kept their distance because of the Tales. Perhaps your father held them at bay because he feared losing you. I don't know why men never pursued you in the past. I can only tell you why they won't pursue you in the future."
He gave her an isn't-it-obvious shrug. "Because I won't let them."
"Oh." Izzy melted against the wall.
He spread his arms for her appraisal. "Am I put back together? Will I do?"
"You're devastating." Still reeling, she touched a hand to her coiffure. Or what remained of it. "My hair. You go ahead. I'll just run upstairs and-"
"Leave it." He took her arm and pulled it through his. "And don't be worried about appearances. Stay close to me, every moment. There won't be any doubt in those solicitors' minds about what I'm doing with you." He paused. "Unless you're worried what your friends will think, in which case-"