“Hugh?” Sarah said softly, after nearly a minute had passed.

He turned and looked at her, then his expression hardened. “It doesn’t matter what I thought,” he said dismissively. “All that matters is what my father thought, and that he is convinced that I must be the one to provide an heir for the next generation. When Winstead nearly killed me . . .” He shrugged, letting Sarah and Daniel come to their own conclusions.

“But he didn’t kill you,” Sarah said. “So you can still . . .”

No one spoke.

“Er, you can, can’t you?” she finally asked. This was no time to be missish and demure.

He chuckled grimly. “I have no reason to suppose otherwise, although I will confess to not having assured my father to that fact.”

“Well, don’t you think you should have done?” she demanded. “He would have let Daniel alone, and—”

“My father,” Hugh cut in sharply, “does not easily let go of vengeance.”

“Indeed,” Daniel said.

“I still don’t understand,” Sarah said. What did any of this have to do with how Hugh brought Daniel back from Italy?

“If you want to marry him,” Daniel said to her, “I will not stand in your way. I like Hugh. I have always liked Hugh, even when we met on that damned dueling field. But I will not permit you to marry him without knowing the truth.”

“What truth?” Sarah demanded. She was so bloody sick of them talking around the issue when she didn’t even know what the issue was.

Daniel stared at her for a long moment, then turned his attention to Hugh. “Tell her how you convinced your father,” he said in a clipped voice.

She looked at Hugh. He was staring at some point over her shoulder. It was like she wasn’t even there.

“Tell her.”

“My father loves nothing so much as the Ramsgate title,” Hugh said in a strange monotone. “I am nothing but a means to an end, but he believes I am his only means, and thus I am invaluable.”

“What does that mean?” she asked.

He turned back to her, blinking as if he was bringing her into focus. “Don’t you understand?” he said softly. “When it comes to my father, the only thing with which I have to bargain is myself.”

Sarah’s uneasiness began to grow.

“I drew up a contract,” Hugh said to her, “explaining exactly what would happen if your cousin met with any harm.”

Sarah’s gaze slid to Daniel, then back to Hugh. “What?” she said, the dread in her voice threatening to drag the very breath from her body. “What will happen?”

Hugh shrugged. “I kill myself.”

Chapter Seventeen

“No, really,” Sarah said. Her voice was forced; her eyes were wary. “What did you say would happen?”

Hugh fought the urge to dig his thumbs into his temples. His head had begun to pound, and he was fairly certain the only remedy would be the cheerful strangulation of Daniel Smythe-Smith. For once, everything in Hugh’s life was looking up—looking bloody perfect—and Daniel had to butt his head in where it was not wanted. Where it was not needed.

This was not how Hugh had meant to have this conversation.

Or maybe he hadn’t meant to have it at all, a small voice within tried to say. He hadn’t so much as thought about it. He’d been so infatuated with Lady Sarah, so utterly entranced by the bliss of falling in love that he hadn’t given a thought to his “agreement” with his father.

But surely—surely she could see that he’d had no other option.

“Is this a joke?” Sarah demanded. “Because if it is, it’s not funny. What did you really say would happen?”

“He’s not lying,” Daniel said.

“No.” Sarah shook her head, aghast. “That can’t be true. It’s preposterous. It’s mad, it’s—”

“The only thing that could ever convince my father to leave him alone,” Hugh said sharply.

“But you didn’t mean it,” she said, desperation in her voice. “Because you lied to him, didn’t you? It was just a threat. An empty threat.”

Hugh didn’t answer. He had no idea if he’d meant it. He’d had a problem—no, he’d been battered by a problem—and he had finally seen a way to solve it. In all honesty, he’d been pleased with himself. He’d thought his plan was brilliant.

His father would never risk losing Hugh before Hugh could see to it that a new generation of Prentice men roamed the land. Although once that happened, Hugh mused, all bets were off. If the marquess had a healthy grandson or two under his power, he likely wouldn’t blink if Hugh went and offed himself.

Well, he might blink once, if only for the sake of appearances. But after that Hugh would be just so much water under the bridge.

Oh, it had been grand when he’d presented his father with that contract. Maybe he was a sick son of a bitch, but the sight of his father so poleaxed, so utterly without recourse or retort . . .

It had been magnificent.

There were advantages to being thought such a loose cannon, Hugh had realized. His father had ranted and railed and upset the tea tray, and all the while Hugh had just watched him with that detached, almost clinical, amusement that never failed to infuriate the marquess.

And then, after Lord Ramsgate declared that Hugh would never go through with such an absurd threat, he’d finally looked at his son. He’d really, truly looked at him for the first time in Hugh’s memory. He’d seen the insolent, empty smile, the steely resolve in the set of his chin, and the marquess had gone so white that his eyes seemed to shrivel in their sockets.