Reaching for the small black velvet pouch that lay on his desk, he began to slip her jewelry inside, signaling once more that their interview was at an end.
“Wait!” she exclaimed.
He paused, sapphires and diamonds dangling from his fingers. “Yes?”
“I can’t leave things like this,” she said, her panic plain. “I came to help my brother, to save my family. I cannot go away empty-handed. Surely there must be some other arrangement we could make? Surely there must be something I can offer you, something of mine you want?”
Repressing a sigh, he slid the last of the gemstones into the pouch and tightened the strings. Silently, he set the sack before her.
Over the past several minutes, Rafe thought, he’d done his best to be attentive and polite, striving to help her see that her pleas and exhortations, no matter how prettily done, would not sway him to her cause. He could only admire her for her steadfast tenacity, but now she really did need to admit defeat. Lady Hawthorne, however well meaning, should go home and let her thoughtless puppy of a brother swallow a dose of his own medicine.
Rafe decided then and there to give her a shove in the right direction. He’d tried reasonable persuasion, cool argument, even a splash of cold reality. Perhaps a more fundamental approach was needed, something cruel enough to wound her, appalling enough to send her fleeing out his door.
“Something of yours I want?” he drawled darkly.
Appearing to be in no discernible hurry, he rested his hip against the edge of his desk, his large body looming suddenly above her own tiny frame. Pinning her with a bold look, he gave free rein to all the lustful desire he’d been feeling since the moment she’d strolled into his study. Blood running hot, he let his emotions gleam openly in his eyes.
Beginning with her exquisite face, he raked her with his gaze, roaming slowly, appraisingly, over her neck and onto her breasts. He lingered for a few long, pointed moments before traveling onward to rove across her belly and thighs, and downward all the way to her feet. Then he started the process again, upward this time, returning for a last slow, voracious caress.
Her lips parted, color blazing on her face.
“Madam,” he said, his voice a low murmur of danger and sensuality, “I have told you already that your belongings are of no worth to me. There is only one thing from you I want, and that would be to strip you naked and take you to my bed. So unless you’re willing to offer yourself to me in exchange for your brother’s debt, we have nothing further to discuss.”
She gasped, her body visibly shivering. He waited, expecting her to leap up, grab her possessions, and run screaming from his house.
Instead she sat, silent and utterly still, only her cheeks displaying her inner turmoil, her skin flushing alternately pink, then pale, then pink again.
Finally she drew a shaky breath and raised her chin. “If I agree,” she murmured, “what would be your terms?”
RAFE BLINKED AND nearly lost his balance, catching himself a split second before his hip slipped off the desk.
Did she say what I think she said? No, he assured himself after a moment, I must have imagined it.
“My terms?” he said slowly, waiting.
Instead of shooting him a horrified glare, she twisted her fingers together and gazed down at her lap.
“Yes,” she whispered. “What would you want?” Her cheeks flamed hot as a July sun at her own question. “I mean, I know what you’d want, but when would you…umm…where would you…would it be just one time? Heavens, you wouldn’t want it now, would you?”
As if she’d laid a hand between his legs, raw need sprang to life, his arousal stiff and strong. His imagination went wild, conjuring all sorts of heated sexual scenarios. For a moment, he pictured himself dragging Julianna from her chair and laying her across the wide, solid expanse of his desk. After kissing her half-senseless, his own thoughts scorched to a sensual haze, he would lift her skirts and…
Realizing he’d better find a sturdy seat before he unmanned himself and actually did land ass-first on the floor, he carefully straightened and retreated to the safety of his desk chair.
Sinking back against the comfortable leather, he used the moment to regain his sense of control. To say she had surprised him was an understatement, especially considering he was not a man who often found himself caught off guard.
Is she truly contemplating my audacious suggestion?
When he’d issued it, he’d never expected her to take his proposition seriously. He’d assumed such bold talk would frighten her away, making her hurry home like any ordinary woman would have done.
But then no ordinary woman would have come to his home in the first place, nor sat bravely pleading her brother’s case in spite of an almost certain refusal. Julianna Hawthorne was most decidedly out of the common way, yet a lady through and through from the tips of her manicured fingernails to the ends of her dainty toes. And as such, she ought to be tossing his base declaration back in his face, not giving it additional thought.
She ought to be offended. Why wasn’t she offended? Why wasn’t she telling him he was a loathsome, contemptible swine?
And why wasn’t he doing what he knew he ought by climbing to his feet and hustling her out the door? Shifting uneasily in his chair, he knew exactly why.
Narrowing his eyes, he surveyed her. Just how far would she take this? He decided to test the waters.
“No, not today,” he stated. “As to the frequency, I hardly think one time would be sufficient.” Drawing a breath, he continued, making sure to keep his voice deliberately matter-of-fact. “The best bang in the world isn’t worth thirty thousand pounds. No madam, our association would need to be of a much longer duration, should we agree.”
Now she will leave, he thought. Now, she will gather up her cloak and her dignity and return to her fancy, insular world, where ladies did not find themselves importuned by baseborn financiers like himself.
Lips firming, she squeezed her fingers together so tightly it was a wonder she didn’t snap one off. “H-How long then?”
How long? she’d asked. How long indeed, to pay off a debt of such magnitude? How long to take and keep her as his mistress while he slaked his desire for her? How many days, weeks, and months would it take for him to sate himself with her rare, unusual beauty before her allure began to pale? Before he grew bored, as he inevitably would, and craved her no longer?
What price to place on a lady’s virtue?
Lower-class women offered their bodies for sale all the time, of course, bartering sex in order to earn a few shillings for food, for shelter, for survival. But this woman was no common whore; she wouldn’t starve or freeze to death in some alley if she didn’t give herself to him.
Abruptly, the knowledge of what she was contemplating angered him. Was her brother so very important to her, then? Was keeping the young earl safe from financial and social destruction worth placing herself quite literally into the hands of a stranger?
“Before I ponder such a detail,” he mused aloud, “tell me why. Why would you do this?”
Her gaze flashed up to his. “I’ve told you why. I have to help my family.”
“Your brother, yes. And is he truly worth such a price? Even if I accept you in trade, so to speak, what’s to keep him from frittering away his fortune after this debt is paid? What’s to guarantee your noble gesture won’t be for naught when he tosses away his fortune again at some future date?”
“Harry’s promised me he’ll never gamble again, and I believe him. He’s miserable and repentant, enough so that I’m convinced he’s learned his lesson. He’s not a bad young man, only a misguided one.”
“The debtor’s prisons are full of misguided men whom others once thought were good.”
“Harry is good,” she defended. “Besides, he’s not the only person who would be harmed. I have a little sister. She’s seventeen and ready to make her come out in a few weeks. I won’t have her embarrassed, nor will I see her put in the position of having to marry for money. I want her to be able to love and admire the man she marries, not feel as if she must wed in order to replenish the family coffers.”
As Julianna herself had once done? he wondered. Had she been forced into a marriage not of her own choosing? She was young to be a widow, younger than his own thirty-five years. Twenty-seven, twenty-eight, he’d guess, a woman still at the height of her bloom with many, many fine seasons yet to come.
He vaguely remembered hearing of a property by that name that had passed to a distant relation when the old lord died without leaving a male heir. Was she his widow? If so, her husband had been several decades her senior.
He watched her for another long moment, his body hard and aching for a taste of her. Suddenly he wondered why he was arguing with her. What did he care about her motives or reasons? If this woman wanted to offer herself in exchange for Allerton’s debt, who was he to dissuade her?