Still, was a chance to bed her really worth thirty thousand pounds? Years ago, he’d have given a firm, if regretful, no. He’d have had to say no. But through force of will and his own stubborn determination to succeed, he was now a wealthy man, a very wealthy man who could easily afford, should he choose, to do precisely as he wished.
So, should he give in to temptation?
God knows he wanted her, his body hungering with a fresh, belly-tightening pull of desire. He couldn’t recall ever craving a woman with such instantaneous need. There was something about her that attracted him on a basic, elemental level, igniting a visceral reaction quite at odds with his usual state of calm, calculated restraint.
He imagined how it would feel to hold her in his arms, to kiss those soft, cherry-ripe lips, to settle his naked body against her own and sink himself deep, deep into her moist, heated flesh.
State his terms, she’d told him. State his terms and there was a very good possibility he could do all those things with her and more.
“Six months,” he said in a brusque tone.
“Six?” Her dark eyes grew round.
“Yes, six. Five thousand pounds per month until the debt is paid. It’s an extremely generous offer, I do assure you. Most mistresses don’t get a fraction of that.”
She lowered her gaze again. “And is that what I’d be,” she murmured low, “your mistress?”
“Seems the most appropriate, least offensive term for what we are discussing.” Needing a distraction, he drew his thumb along the smooth edge of a silver letter opener. “I’ll want you at least three times a week. Under ordinary circumstances, I’d set you up in a house that provided me with access to you whenever I wished. But I assume that won’t be an option in this case.”
Her head jerked up, a bit of fire returning to her expression. “No. No one of my acquaintance can ever be permitted to know about us. And you will have to promise never to breathe a word to anyone about our arrangement, most especially not to my brother or to any of his peers.”
“Wouldn’t want it to leak out that you’re trafficking with a baseborn commoner like me, hmm?”
A faintly alarmed look came over her face, as if afraid he’d withdraw his offer because of her declaration. “It’s not just my reputation at stake,” she defended. “I have my sister’s welfare to consider. She mustn’t be tainted by my actions. Even a whisper of scandal could ruin her chances in Society, you see.”
Yes, Rafe thought, he did see. The aristocracy, when it chose, could be vicious as snakes, especially to members of its own class. Particularly to its women, when they were perceived to have broken the rules.
“Don’t worry,” he assured her, “no one will ever know. I’ve a reputation of my own and am well known for my tact and discretion in all matters. It will be our private business and ours alone.”
Julianna let out a shaky sigh of relief and struggled against the shivers that threatened to take hold of her.
For mercy’s sake, what am I doing? she kept asking herself. Was she really sitting here across from this chillingly lethal man discussing how best to barter her body to him for payment of Harry’s debt? Harry would be livid if he knew and would unquestionably forbid her to proceed. But what else was she to do?
From the time of their mother’s death when Julianna was eleven, she’d cared for her two younger siblings, more mother to them in many ways than older sister. They were all the family she had left in the world. She couldn’t abandon them now, no matter the sacrifice.
“Very well,” she murmured. “That leaves where and when. Even as a widow, I can’t come and go at all hours. We would need to meet at times when my absence would go unremarked. Afternoon, perhaps.”
She flushed at the thought. How mortifying! In all the years of her marriage, she’d never once had relations at any time other than night.
“Afternoon is agreeable. I’ll rearrange my schedule. As for where, I have a couple of locations in mind. I’ll think on it and let you know. You’ll need to give me your direction so I can send ’round a messenger. Discreetly, of course.”
Half numb, she repeated her address on Upper Brook Street, realizing as she did the magnitude of her actions. Was she really going through with this shameful plan? With every word spoken, every second that passed, the likelihood increased.
A queasy fist clenched tight in her stomach. Only by sheer force of will did she remain seated, powerfully tempted to hurry out to her waiting hack and race back to the security and comfort of her home. A home where he now knew she lived. She’d come to offer him her possessions. Instead she was offering herself.
“I can think of only one final item that requires discussion,” he said in that deep, smooth drawl that made shivers tingle deliciously along her spine. “The likelihood of you getting in a family way.”
Her mouth fell open, her shock so profound she couldn’t utter a squeak.
He went on. “I’ll do what I can to prevent a pregnancy. There are a few methods available, though admittedly none that are foolproof. You should take precautions as well, efficacious herbs and such; that way both of us can increase the odds no unwanted issue shall spring from our liaison. Lord knows the last thing I want is to bring another bastard into the world.”
Was he illegitimate? she thought, wondering at his remark. She recalled the earlier statement he’d made when he’d referred to himself as a “baseborn commoner.” Well, many men of his class came into this world outside the sanctity of marriage. If he had, it didn’t matter to her.
She swallowed a sigh, an old, familiar sadness sweeping through her as she considered the topic at hand. Though in this instance, all she could feel was relief. She no more wanted to find herself pregnant with his child than he did.
“You needn’t worry, Mr. Pendragon,” she said, rediscovering her voice. “There will be no child.”
He frowned. “And why is that?”
“Because I am barren.” She gazed toward the window and stared half-seeing at a weak shaft of light reflecting against the pane.
“Are you certain?”
Painfully embarrassed at having to discuss such a delicate, private matter, her head snapped around. “Quite certain. In the five years of my marriage I never conceived. My husband had three daughters from a previous marriage. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out which one of us was at fault.”
For a moment he had the grace to look chastened. “My regrets.”
“Keep them,” she tossed back. “Given our impending arrangement, my inability to conceive a child would appear to be a blessing.”
He stood and came around his desk again. “So, we are agreed then?”
His cool green eyes regarded her the way a panther might its prey. Large and supremely male, he loomed over her despite the space separating them. She suppressed the need to tremble, aware of him in a way she didn’t believe she’d ever before been aware of a man.
Was she truly prepared to place herself within his power? Inwardly she quaked at the thought. How would it be to let him touch her, kiss her, to give him the right to take her body? Her blood beat unsteadily at the notion. Yet it would only be for six months, she reminded herself. For her family, she could endure anything for six months.
“Yes,” she murmured softly, “we are agreed.”
He leaned even closer. “Shall we seal our bargain with a kiss?”
“No!” she exclaimed, jolting in her chair. “There will be no kissing today.”
He laughed, emphasizing the long dimples in his cheeks in a way that made him appear even more fiercely handsome than before. “Then it seems I shall have to console myself with mere fantasies until our next meeting.”
Leaning across his desk, he reached for a ledger bound in fine quality leather, then flipped it open. Running a finger down one page, he paused on an entry near the middle. “Lord Allerton is scheduled to pay his obligation a week from Thursday. Would Wednesday next be a suitable date to begin our arrangement?”
So soon? she thought, dismayed. That would leave her only eight days, a little over a week to adjust to the life-altering step she was about to take. And once she set herself onto that path, there would be no turning back.
Yet a week, a month, a year, what difference would it make? No matter how much time she had, it would never be enough. Time would not make this bargain of hers any easier to face.
“Very well,” she agreed before she had an opportunity to turn coward. “Next Wednesday it shall be.”
He nodded. “What about your brother? What will you tell him?”
Oh, dear. Harry. What would she tell him? Certainly not the truth.
“I’ll think of a story,” she said. “Something he’ll accept without too many questions asked, something he’ll believe.”
She stood, glad to be on her feet, even if her legs were a bit wobbly. “Well, the hour grows late and I must be going. I’ll await your message.”