Pendragon gave a rueful shake of his head. “Both, I see. Allerton’s certainly been a busy boy, has he not? His vices, however, are really none of my affair.”
“Actually I should think they are, under the circumstances. I cannot defend Harry’s ill-considered behavior, but I can assure you he is extremely sorry for what he has done. I promise you he will do everything in his power to make things right if but given the chance. You seem a reasonable man. Maybe you would be willing to grant him an extension. Another ninety days, perhaps—”
“Your pardon, my lady, but what good would that do? If Allerton doesn’t have the funds now, there’s little chance he’ll have them three months from now. The outcome will be the same.”
“But surely everyone deserves a measure of compassion.”
“Just so, which is why this good city has any number of fine churches and charitable organizations. I, however, run an investment business and am not in the habit of granting imprudent favors.”
Julianna refused to let herself tremble. Harry is right, she thought, this man has no heart.
The Dragon relaxed back in his chair. “Now if I might be permitted to ask you a question.”
“And what, pray tell, is that?”
“I’m curious to know what your husband thinks of you coming to see me in your brother’s stead. Or is he also unaware of today’s visit?”
She stiffened. “I am a widow, sir. I make all of my own decisions.”
“Well, that explains a very great deal.”
His remark rankled, but she decided to let it pass.
“If you refuse to grant my brother an extension,” she continued, “then I am prepared to offer you an alternate form of payment.” Tugging open the drawstrings of her reticule, she reached inside. “Here is a list of several very fine paintings in my possession. Included among them are an original Tintoretto and an extremely beautiful Caravaggio, old master works of great value.”
She passed him a sheet of paper, then returned to dig inside her reticule again. “I have also brought several pieces of jewelry. They include a necklace, bracelet, and ear bobs—a matching set given to me by my late husband at the time of our marriage. The sapphires and diamonds are worth at least five thousand pounds. They’re completely mine and in no way entailed to my husband’s estate.”
Opening the velvet pouch, she drew out the jewels and set them on his desk for display. The gemstones winked and sparkled with vivid life in the candlelight.
He leaned forward. “Quite lovely.”
Heartened, she pressed on. “I did some calculations and concede these items do not fully repay my brother’s loan. But if you would agree to accept these valuables now, I will promise to pay you the remaining thousand pounds in cash come the first of April. My quarterly allowance is placed into my account then, you see.”
Pendragon set aside the list of oil paintings. Steepling his fingers, he rested the tips underneath his chin and regarded the woman on the opposite side of his desk.
She really is magnificent, he mused, lush and lovely and so full of earnest animation and optimistic hope. What a shame he was going to have to disappoint her yet again.
How dare Allerton, he thought. What had the careless whelp been thinking to endanger his family’s welfare and reputation in such a manner? Even if the earl was completely ignorant of his sister’s presence here this afternoon, the young lordling deserved nothing less than a sound thrashing for his irresponsible behavior.
A lady of Julianna Hawthorne’s obvious sweetness and grace should not be discussing business with a man like him. She shouldn’t be discussing business at all. Instead she ought to be home sipping tea with her circle of elegant friends, laughing and trading amusing stories, not be here in a stranger’s study doing her level best to barter her finest jewels to him.
His jaw tightened. Striving for a pleasant yet firm tone, he proceeded. “These are very fine items, my lady. However, they are of insufficient value to cover your brother’s outstanding obligation.”
Her pretty lips fell open. His gaze followed, drawn like a firefly to a flame. Unable to prevent himself, he visually traced their shape, finding them full and pink and every bit as enticing as a dish of ripe June strawberries. And soft. Oh, they looked soft enough to put silk to shame.
Shaking off the sudden rush of desire, he returned to the matter at hand. “The jewelry would need to be appraised,” he said. “Assuming the stones are real—”
Her eyes flashed with offense.
“—which I have no doubt they are,” he amended. “I imagine the set would fetch a little over two thousand pounds.”
“Two thousand, but—”
“Resale, your ladyship. What a person pays for jewelry in a shop is far more than what the pieces are actually worth. As to the paintings, art, even fine art, is a difficult commodity to trade. It could take months to sell the paintings, and then likely for far less than you have estimated.”
Her mouth drooped, her lovely brown eyes awash with disappointment.
For a moment he felt sorry for her, an uncharacteristic urge rising inside him to grant her the boon she so desperately sought. But as he’d already told her, a few months more would make no difference, not in the end. Experience had taught him that if a man couldn’t pay his shot by the due date, chances were excellent he would never be able to pay it at all. Besides, he reminded himself, a businessman who let his sentiments override his sense soon finds himself playing the fool. And one thing he had never been was a fool.
“Perhaps I have some other belongings that might make up the difference,” she continued. “I own a very nice set of silver, and there is my husband’s book collection—”
He held up a hand. “Please, do not continue to put yourself through this turmoil. It’s of no use. Even if all the items you’ve mentioned were worth what you imagined them to be, they still wouldn’t cover your brother’s vowels.”
“But I don’t understand,” she sputtered. “Of course it should satisfy the debt.”
“How much do you imagine he owes, then?”
“A little over ten thousand pounds.”
He sighed. So the whelp hadn’t been honest with her. Delusions, he mused, were a convenient thing.
“His debt is triple that amount.”
“Triple?” Her voice quavered.
“Yes. He owes roughly thirty thousand pounds.”
The blood drained from her cheeks, leaving them parchment pale. “Good God,” she whispered.
“Perhaps you’d care for that sherry now?”
When she said nothing further, he rose to his feet. Soon after, he returned bearing a small glass filled with a translucent amber liquid.
“Here,” he coaxed, holding out the drink. “I’d advise you to take a sip or two.”
But she made no move to accept. In a sweep of lashes, her gaze lifted to meet his own. “Do you know that Harry will lose his estate if he defaults? That he will have no choice but to sell a home that has been in our family for over a hundred and fifty years?”
Rafe forced aside any inkling of compassion. In his profession, he’d long ago learned to do without such tender emotions. “Yes, I am familiar with the property. Allerton used it as collateral when he secured the loan. To be frank, your ancestors were remiss not to have entailed the estate. Given that, it seems surprising the property wasn’t lost or sold off many years past.”
Visibly, she struggled for control, her breath moving rapidly in and out, causing her ample breasts to rise and fall beneath the rich silk of her bodice and the delicate lace fichu tucked above.
He couldn’t help but watch.
What a fine example of womanhood she is, he thought. Her lush body seemed perfectly designed to make a man want to tumble her into his lap and play love games. She wasn’t pretty in the conventional sense—far too brown for a traditional English beauty—yet she was stunning all the same. Deeply dark, her hair gleamed with a lustrous hue, as fine and satiny as the polished mahogany wood of his desk. Her eyes complemented her, their color an unusual shade of coffee containing tiny flecks that sparkled like gold dust. And her skin…ah, her skin, smooth and translucent as a summer peach, and no doubt every inch as tasty. He wondered if she had French blood in her veins, or maybe Italian, her look exotic and nothing short of intoxicating.
A real sigh escaped her lips, the sound shattering his heated thoughts.
Realizing he still held her drink in his hand, he set it down before her with an unintentional snap. Carefully, he worked to erase any hint of his former musings from his expression. Only then did he speak.
“Hard as it may be for you to accept, the financial arrangement between Lord Allerton and myself is binding and will stand as written. Now, my lady, I believe you should go. I shall see you to the door, since I am sure Hannibal is busy somewhere belowstairs.”