"Collateral?" Mr. Hardheart tried working up some indignation. "Jeffrey, Earl of Choir, is a leading peer of the realm. His word is his collateral."
Madame Schlierbeck smiled. Hardheart hated doing business with women. They either knew nothing or far too much.
"The terms will be excessive," she allowed, "the risk being considerable."
"You are agreeing to make the loan, then?"
"Five thousand? Six months?"
"I will make the loan," she said.
Mr. Hardheart's already inflamed chest seemed to soar. I cannot believe I have pulled this off, he told himself, imagining how he would triumphantly wire the Earl.
"With a condition," Madame Schlierbeck added.
She held out her hand as if examining her nails. Not an ugly woman, he reflected, relaxing enough to appraise her as a man more ordinarily regards one of the opposite sex. Pretty, really, feature by feature. Just a little exotic for his taste. Her eyes were almost purple, her hair so thick and dark, her shape too frankly there. His gaze strayed to the curing meats that hung from the rafters.
"I can only assume that at the end of these six months the Earl will either be relieved of his financial worries or bankrupt."
Mr. Hardheart did not answer. His body, previously humming with relief, suddenly froze, an animal scenting danger.
"Naturally, if he is bankrupt, I will not be able to get my money back."
"I told you, his name alone guarantees--"
"Exactly," she interrupted. "His name. That is what I will take, if he has nothing else."
"I do not understand."
She continued to regard her hand, more specifically a finger upon which the large opal ring she usually wore no longer sat.
"An offer of marriage," she said plainly, "dated a half year from now, in his hand, signed, witnessed, and affixed with his seal."
"This is preposterous," Mr. Hardheart got out.
"Is it?" She turned her large amethyst eyes to him. "It is merely a condition in the event of non-payment. If he is successful, he will already be betrothed, and the document a mere curiosity. I will even swear in the agreement not to reveal the contents of the proposal if it is no longer valid. Surely he will not give any of this a second thought. I will even reduce my usual rates. Halve them, say."