Julianna crossed to retrieve her pelisse. Before she could reach it, Pendragon strode up behind her and grasped the cloak. Silently, he held the garment up for her to don. Hesitating for a long moment, she slowly presented her back to him and waited.
Her throat grew suddenly dry, heart pumping fast as the clean, masculine scents of writing ink, bayberry, and a hint of what must be Rafe Pendragon himself curled enticingly beneath her nose.
He slid the cloak over her, then rested his broad palms on her shoulders. “If you don’t arrive by one in the afternoon next Wednesday,” he murmured, his mouth very near her ear, “I will assume you have changed your mind about our agreement. If that should prove the case, the original terms of your brother’s loan stand, including the due date. Think carefully about the lies you tell him lest they come back to haunt you.”
She pulled herself out of his grasp and swung around to face him. “And what of you, sir? I have nothing but your word, and though I should likely make you write down the terms of our agreement, to whom would I show it should you decide to defraud me? How do I know you will uphold your end of the bargain and set my brother free when this…arrangement between us is at an end?”
His jaw tightened, eyes lambent beneath hooded lids. “You do not. And though I can’t claim to be a gentleman, I am a man of my word. So long as you abide by the terms of our agreement, I will do the same. No tricks. No deceits. Whether or not you trust me is entirely up to you. You have my permission to forget this day ever happened and let your brother settle his own debts. Good day, Lady Hawthorne. I have other business to conduct.”
He was angry at her accusation, she realized. Even more, he was insulted. Yet his words rang with truth, his demeanor radiating the kind of offended pride only a man of honor would display. If she chose to go through with this bargain of theirs, she felt reassured he would honor the terms exactly as agreed.
“Until next Wednesday, Mr. Pendragon,” she said softly. “Do not bother ringing for your man, I shall see myself out.”
WHAT ABOUT THIS one, Jules? Wouldn’t it make a stunning riding habit?”
Julianna glanced over at the sample of cloth Maris held out, a luxurious Prussian blue velvet far too bold for an ingénue of seventeen. Julianna raised a ruefully amused eyebrow, well aware of the game she and her sister had been playing ever since they’d arrived at the dressmaker’s shop nearly an hour before.
“It would make a lovely riding habit for me,” Julianna said. “As I think on it, I may ask Madame LaCroix to make it up for my wardrobe. I could do with a new riding outfit.”
Maris thrust out her lower lip in an exaggerated pout. “I don’t see why I cannot wear any of the pretty colors. Pinks and whites and pale yellows, ugh! I shall look like a washed-out fright in all these insipid pastels.”
“You won’t look a fright,” Julianna repeated, doing her best to hide her amusement at her sister’s melodramatic declaration. “You’ll look beautiful. You know you are radiant in whatever color you wear.”
“Well, I don’t feel radiant. I feel ordinary. Don’t you think I would look much better in this?” Maris lifted up a length of emerald green satin. “See?” she urged, displaying the cloth next to her fair skin and dark hair. “Isn’t it gorgeous?”
Julianna shook her head. “You are not going to talk me into it, dear. You know debutantes must wear subdued shades. When you are a married lady, you may wear any color you like, but until then…” She shrugged, letting her statement drift off.
“How wonderful to be a married woman!” Maris sighed. “Free of all these horrid rules and restrictions.”
Not always so wonderful, Julianna thought as she perused the bolts of available fabrics. Contentment in marriage and the amount of freedom a lady had depended largely upon one’s spouse. She wanted Maris to take her time and find the right man. She wanted Maris to find someone who would make her happy.
Julianna reached for a sprigged muslin, cream-colored with a sprinkling of tiny purple violets. “How about this? It would make a charming day dress.”
“Hmm, I suppose it would.” Reaching out a hand, Maris held a length of the material up to the cheery sunlight streaming in through the shop’s front windows. “Actually, I quite like it.” She paused. “I’m sorry to be so difficult, Jules. I know you are right and only trying to advise me properly. I’m just nervous about my debut. What if I don’t take? What if no one likes me? They say blondes are de rigueur this year.”
“Don’t be silly,” Julianna shushed. “Everyone will adore you, and once they see that pretty face of yours, brunettes will suddenly be all the rage instead of blondes.” She dusted a reassuring kiss over her sister’s youthful cheek. “Quit worrying. You are going to have a wonderful Season, and you are forbidden to fret about a thing. Your only task is to have fun. You are a dear, sweet girl. No one will be able to resist you, especially the gentlemen.”
Maris gave her a hopeful smile. “You truly think so?”
“I know so. Now go try on the pink polonaise Madame set aside for you. Let’s see if the style suits.”
“Pink, ugh!” Maris gave a mock shudder, rolled her eyes, and stuck out her tongue like the child she still was. Grinning, she strolled dutifully toward the fitting rooms in the rear.
If only my own troubles could be so simple, Julianna mused. With nothing more to worry about than the color of my next dress, and whether or not I will be popular this Season.
Over the past week, Julianna had racked her brain, trying to conceive of some way out of her agreement with The Dragon. She understood now why others called him that, the moniker more than a simple play on his unusual surname.
The man truly was a beast. A quick, cunning adversary who could mesmerize a person with his cool green gaze, lull you with his words, then burn you crisp as toast before you understood you’d been neatly snared inside his trap.
As ridiculous as it seemed, she’d clung to the faint hope that Harry would dig himself out, that he would arrive on her doorstep to tell her he’d found the money and had paid off the debt. But a look at him last night, when she’d gone to the family townhouse for dinner, had shattered her illusions.
Dark circles had ringed his worried brown eyes, a sickly pallor adding a faint green undertone to his usually swarthy complexion. Then there’d been his drinking as he tossed back glass after glass of wine, swallowing it the way a thirsty man would guzzle water.
She’d realized then that their salvation would be up to her.
But could she do it?
Did she really have the courage, the conviction to put herself, her body, quite literally in the hands of a man like Rafe Pendragon? Did she have the strength of will to become The Dragon’s mistress?
She could always marry, she supposed. Her friends were continually urging her to find a new husband. She was young, they said. Attractive. Look how the men flocked to her. It was a running joke how Lord Summersfield kept proposing to her—a half dozen times at last count. And there were at least two other gentlemen, wealthy men both, who were always tossing her hints. Any one of them would offer her a ring tomorrow, she knew, if she’d only say the word.
But she didn’t want to say the word. The plain truth of it was she’d had a husband, and she didn’t want another.
Unlike the married women of her acquaintance who had to beg and cajole their husbands for every farthing in their purse, she had her own income. Her stipend wasn’t large but it was comfortable, allowing her adequate money for necessities, a few servants, and the occasional luxury or two. And she owned her townhouse on Upper Brook Street, a property that had come solely into her possession after her husband Basil’s death.
No, Julianna reasoned, being a widow isn’t so bad. The status gave her an immense amount of freedom, a rare independence that she cherished and had no desire to give up.
Marriage, of course, would be the respectable way out of her present dilemma, a choice most women in her position would make. But she’d been forced into marriage once, and by God, she would never let herself be forced again.
Many would condemn her if they learned of her bargain with Pendragon, would shun her for consorting with a man not her social equal. But in spite of the risks and the indignity of letting such a man use her body, she would rather spend six months as his mistress than a lifetime trapped in another empty marriage to a man she did not love.
Nerves ate at her stomach at the thought of what she would have to do in only two days’ time, together with an odd tingle in her blood that she could only describe as an innate sexual awareness.
Jittery as she might be, there was no denying the fact that Rafe Pendragon was an incredibly handsome man. The mere memory of him—his penetrating green eyes, the sculpted line of his jaw, the dimples that would send a nun into a swoon—made her go all hot and shivery. The idea that she would soon be granting him the right to kiss and touch her, to explore her body in the most carnal of ways, left her throat dry and her pulse alarmingly unsteady. She’d never particularly enjoyed the mating act, but with a man like Pendragon, who knew what might transpire?